“A Thousand Miles to Freedom” is the honest and shocking story of a girl’s escape from Kim Jong Un’s regime in North Korea.
Eunsun’s story is a reality check and a reminder of the privileges and opportunities we enjoy as one of the free countries of the world, which inadvertently made me reflect about the many things I’m grateful for.
Eunsun Kim was only 11 years old when she, her sister Keumsun, and their mother fled their hometown of Eundeok, North Korea because of the Great Famine. Eunsun recounts,
“On the balcony, I found some dusty turnip leaves… I grabbed some of the least discolored leaves to boil and make into a soup. For two days, I survived on this tasteless concoction.”
Her father and grandparents had already died of starvation.
Eunsun, her sister and mom fled in still of the night toward the Chinese border to cross the icy Tumen River. Their plans fell through several times because of the cold and the border patrol. As a result, they were sent back to starve. After they finally crossed the border into China, they survived by stealing until they found some kind people who clothed and fed them… or so they thought, until one day, money was exchanged.
“I did not yet understand we had just been sold for two thousand yuan.”
The woman they thought helped them had sold them to an uncouth, selfish farmer who bought them to get Eunsun’s mother to have a child, in hopes of gaining status in his family to acquire an inheritance. For years, they toiled in the fields for the farmer and were beaten senseless. Finally, Eunsun’s mother got pregnant, but it wasn’t the end of their problems, even after she had given birth.
The three of them underwent so many trials after fleeing North Korea. They were caught in a Chinese police raid and deported, and had to flee again, only to return to the exploitation and beatings by the same farmer. They had no choice but to abandon Eunsun’s brother, hide their identities and continuously move to different cities.
After buying fake documents and living in Shanghai, Eunsun and her mother were determined to move to South Korea, where they could surrender and be granted citizenship as defectors. They paid their hard-earned and saved money over the years to a sketchy smuggling ring to bring them into South Korea. Keumsun had fallen in love with her Chinese boyfriend and stayed behind in Shanghai. Eunsun and her mother were smuggled through the Gobi Desert with three other North Korean escapees.
“We had to cross this no-man’s-land as fast as possible to get to the Mongolian border, which was several miles away. For an entire hour, we ran until we were out of breath.”
Mongolian soldiers caught them, but the other women managed to negotiate their release, haggling with skincare products. After being taken to the military base, the South Korean Embassy and finally flown to South Korea, they were interrogated for a month but finally released into their new, safe lives in South Korea.
Reading this book was a reality check for me, especially because this story didn’t take place long ago. This is still happening today and to millions of people of all ages in North Korea. Even with our technology, the censorship in North Korea keeps us out of the know about what’s really going on. Only through escapees’ stories are we able to find out the details of real life and conditions in North Korea.
After reading this book, I can’t help but reflect on my own life and all the comforts I take for granted every day. For one, I’m grateful that I don’t know what it is to be hungry. Not skipped-breakfast-this-morning hungry, but truly, on the brink of dying hungry. Eunsun and her family went days without eating and still had to gather and sell firewood to scrounge up any bit of money so they could buy food.
I feel grateful to live in the US. The luck of the draw gave me a life protected by a country and government that values human rights. While I don’t claim our system is perfect (as I know a lot of things go unseen and unsaid), I am grateful for our freedom of speech. When we use our voices, we take steps toward betterment and progression.
On the flip side, as long as Eunsun could remember, she “loved” the leaders of North Korea.
“We loved Kim Il-sung and his son and successor, Kim Jong-il, with all our hearts.”
At the death of Kim Il-sung, North Koreans were required to cry. Not crying could be punishable by death.
“I didn’t know exactly why I was crying, but I felt that it was necessary to do so.”
In retrospect, Eunsun reflected on the dire conditions they were forced to live in and the death of her closest family members due to the famine and came to the realization that she was furious about the lies they’d been fed as a nation about their “‘Dear leader’ Kim Jong-il” and the “socialist paradise” he created for them in North Korea.
Reading about Eunsun’s harsh life conditions and the brainwashing and extreme control of the North Korean government makes me so thankful that I am free to think, believe, speak, and act as I see fit.
Since finding safety in South Korea, Eunsun has earned her Master’s degree and now works for a non-profit supporting human rights in North Korea. It took 9 years for Eunsun and her mother to find safety in South Korea after their long and perilous journey together fleeing their home country.
Photo Sources: NY Daily News