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A Blackened Land

So many miracles have happened to me in the last few months. I left behind my beloved homeland where I was born and raised and made my way through hell, just under the nose of the grim reaper. Today, I enter through the gates of heaven. The Republic of Korea! This is heaven. When the gates of this paradise open wide—a heaven once glimpsed only in fairy tales—that beautiful world I so ardently longed for will spread out before me. I will no longer be forced to struggle against oppression, as if trapped alone inside a box. I no longer have to be carted off by People’s Security agents for the crime of wearing blue jeans, or bite my tongue to keep from voicing complaints, or tremble in fear of surveillance. My sense of emptiness about the gloomy future has disappeared.

 This is freedom. Freedom is life for a human being. A poet once wrote that he could give up his life for the sake of love, but he would give up that precious love for the sake of freedom. Yet the supreme leaders of North Korea have obliterated the freedom that should be our human birthright. The people of North Korea are slaves and machines first, that must be torn apart and broken for the sake of Kim Jong-un and his father, and human beings second. This is the world of Kim Jong-il, a tyrant above all other tyrants, who would stop at nothing to suppress the people’s freedom. And this is the reason above all other reasons that I left my homeland.

Twenty-eight years ago, on Lunar New Year’s Day in 1984, a day when large flakes of snow fell like cotton wool from the sky and blanketed every village, a tiny baby, runtish and wrinkled and dark-skinned, was born in a shabby one-kan­ room in the northernmost city of North Korea. That ugly baby, who lay on the white blanket her mother had made by hand and who bawled and flailed her bony hands and feet every which way, was me. Because I was an ugly child who did not take after her mother, my nickname from the moment I was born was “Ugly Duckling,” after the Hans Christian Andersen story.

My father was one of the few electrical engineering specialists in North Korea, but his career stagnated and left him as nothing more than a clerk for the Chongjin Railroad Factory. My mother was an ordinary North Korean housewife supported by the worthless clerk. My childhood memories are all of trembling with fear and anxiety. When I do make the effort to remember something beautiful, what comes to mind is the memory of picking an armful of the azaleas that blossomed gloriously on the mountainside behind our home, putting them in a bucket that had a hole in the bottom, and pouring a tremendous amount of water into it. That, and returning home from kindergarten one day to my mother’s warm smile and a beautiful doll that she made for me. I tried to avoid my father, who was always the object of my fear, while he in turn sought me out on the days he drank as the target of his anger.

How I resented him back then! In truth, he was a wonderful person. He was a bright, intelligent man who had earned the epithets of “walking encyclopedia” and “amateur artist who puts professionals to shame” from his friends. His descent into becoming a twisted antagonist and the object of terror in our household started with the banishment of my grandparents, a husband-and-wife screenwriting team that had once enjoyed the trust of Kim Jong-il. But due to Kim Jong-il’s strange caprices, the elderly couple was sent one day to work in the coal mines to be “revolutionized.” My father, who was their eldest son, was expelled from college. His young dream of studying hard and shaking up the world of electronics in North Korea stopped as abruptly as a car with a blown tire. For my father, life was no longer beautiful. Life itself was both his hell and the shackles of his humiliation. As I grew up, I slowly began to understand his madness, which I had concluded was simply a result of alcohol, and I began to get a faint sense of the pain he felt, like making out the contours of a mountain through an early morning fog. Perhaps I had already made up my mind at that young age, when I was still oblivious to the woman inside of me, to live alone forever, because of the fear that marriage would mean having to live with a frightening man like my father.

Despite my instant fright at the mere mention of the word men, spring arrived one day, and I went through a dreamlike puberty. It happens to everyone. Puberty is a time when our hearts grow aflutter with unnamable impulses toward our objects of desire. When I turned eighteen, I became a beautiful woman, having cast off the ugly duckling past and transformed into a lovely swan. I did not keep my promise to myself of never marrying after all. The cruel world introduced men to me and gifted me with the time bomb called marriage.

Marriage! Why would I refer to such an elegant and beautiful word as a “time bomb?” Because marriage in North Korea, which is a playground for all sorts of social evils, is just like a time bomb—you never know when it will all fall apart or just how you will hurt each other.

My husband, who was a year ahead of me in high school and an athlete, was very popular among the other boys and girls. He had a pretty face that put the girls to shame: his pale, clear skin looked sculpted, and he had the dark eyes typical of a North Korean youth, that sparkled behind soft double eyelids. Then there was the high, straight nose and the cute, full, rosy pink lips. Every time he walked by, the girls all swooned and I was no different.

I will never forget the day he told me he loved me.

Our graduation ceremony had ended and I was on my way home. A track athlete in the April 15 Sports League named for Kim Il Sung’s birthday, he stood waiting for me in the middle of the sports field. He gestured for me to follow him. Drawn to him like a magnet, I did not ask why but simply went with him. We sat on the old, rusted swings….

The creaking of the swing as it shook beneath his strong, muscular legs was the only thing that broke the silence of the night. I listened as the swing creaked back and forth, feeling like we were the only two people in the world, and my body trembled with the thrill of first love. If he had called me there for any reason other than love, I might have died on the spot. Ah, I cannot take any more of this leaden silence, I thought . . .

I prayed earnestly for him to hurry up and say something, anything. Finally, the creaking stopped, and he confessed his love. His voice, which was unexpectedly clear and sonorous, seemed unfamiliar, as if I were hearing him speak for the first time.

“I’ve had my eye on you ever since we met. You’re so beautiful . . . Will you be my girl?”

It seemed like it was difficult for him to get the words out. He was shaking, and he let out a deep sigh. Then I think he said something else, but I couldn’t hear a word.

All I could hear was the pounding of my own heart. I was cold and my heart was racing, as if I had just stepped inside an enormous pressing plant. My legs trembled. I felt like life would be beautiful forever and ever so long as we were together and he was by my side.

Lost in a beautiful fantasy, I got no sleep that night. But that dreamlike honeymoon did not last long.

This is how our tragic romance began. Harsh reality trampled cruelly on our blissful and beautiful dream.

It was several days after our wedding. The husband that I came to know during what was supposed to be our fairytale honeymoon period turned out to be an entirely different person. I found out that he had been doing drugs and hiding it from me while we were dating. From that point on, he began indulging his addiction openly.

At first, I was shocked. I tried to be understanding, as he had lost his father. I tried to sympathize, imagining the pain of a bird whose wings had been broken in the prime of its life. I tried reasoning and pleading with him, and sometimes wept and wailed.

This drug, which was a clear white crystal, was called “ice” because it looked just like a chunk of ice. When he rolled it up in the shiny aluminum lining of a cigarette pack and touched the lighter to it, bluish gray smoke would curl up from it, like a cobra dancing to a flute. He inhaled this fearsome smoke through his nose and exhaled it through his mouth; from that moment, man turned to beast. The scourge of North Korea that obliterated personality and reduced people to animals—crystal meth. It turned men into monsters.

Our love also began to fall apart. When the drug took hold of him, my husband’s once- compassionate eyes turned to those of a starving hyena, and his once beautiful rosy-cheeked face gradually wrinkled and sprouted age spots like a man in his seventies. His skin would flake off for days at a time, making him look like he was suffering from a skin disease . . . The gray hairs that sparkled in the sunlight were so soft that I sometimes caught myself stroking them. But if I pulled on them, they would break off like corn silk, and his thin, disheveled hair grew tangled and matted. His soul was in slow decay. I could tolerate that much, but what I could not stomach was the madness that would seize him at any moment. Already under the influence of the drug, he was occasionally vaguely aware of my existence through the fog that clouded his mind, but I meant nothing to him, like a doll that one quickly tires of. When I saw him like that, my heart sank.

What turned him into such a monster? Despite being one of the top students in our high school, he was not allowed to enter college because his grandfather, who was once a high-ranking North Korean general, died in a camp for political prisoners after one of Kim Il-song’s bloody purges. He had shone in school and had a lot of pride, but the day his grandfather died, he drank his fill of alcohol, which he had never touched before, and was carried home by his friends. From that moment on, his personality was derailed, and he became a brute who sought pleasure in drugs and gambling.

I cried and lamented my life, which had already gone astray as a result of my poor decision. But the fact that I was not the only woman in North Korea to suffer this way gave me comfort. Among the women like me who were crying and struggling were wives of party workers and wives of military intelligence officers. After North Korea began producing drugs, under the pretext of cultivating white bellflower to bring in foreign currency in order to keep the economy going, the effort to sell to other countries turned the entire country into drug dealers. The number of addicts among party workers and their wives surged. North Korea became so steeped in drugs that party leaders and drudges alike had to keep using them in order to do work, and even intelligence officers had to do drugs in order to recover their lost spirits and do their jobs.

Who on earth could have dreamed up this horrible thing? When I learned one day from an intelligence officer that the heads of North Korea and even the high-ranking leaders of the central party used this drug at their secret inner-circle banquets, I shook with rage. The maker of this hateful drug that had caused the downfall of my beloved husband and ripped to shreds the hearts of all parents and wives and mothers in North Korea was none other than Kim Jong-il and his son, who claimed to be walking the front lines every day for the good of the people.

Kim Jong-il was a devil who wore the mask of a great leader. In an anonymous letter that was found in Kim Jong-suk’s birthplace in Hoeryong, Hamgyeong Province, the three generations of the Kims are compared to three bears in a funny, satirical song. Though bears that frequently appear in fairy tales can be rather foolish, they are nonetheless respected and much loved. But the comparison of the Kims to bears was all too gentle a description. If I were a writer, I would have written a song about a poisonous spider. I think of the Kims as spiders spewing black poison.

When I was a young girl, I saw a cartoon about a colony of ants who worked together to defeat a spider that was controlling them—an evil spider that trapped countless ants in its web, suffocated them with poisonous gas, and devoured them one by one. North Korea—where people’s lives are held cheaply, where nuclear tests are held and missiles fired while three million starve to death—is a land blackened with the poison of despotism, closed politics, and three generations of dictators.

The earth is dark, the sky is dark, and the people’s hearts are dark. In this land thick with toxic smoke, the people slowly die as they cough and fight to breathe. Who will save them?

We will. We, the defectors who miraculously escaped. We, who have become free and good citizens of the Republic of Korea, must breathe deep the fresh air of this land and pool our strength so that we might save our parents, our brothers, and our children. Kim Jong-un, be warned: Your people are leaving…

February 2013

© Kim Yeon-seul. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Sora Kim-Russell. All rights reserved.