I could start by describing Kim is a dazzling modern Seoulite, wearing top designer clothes from a famous South Korean brand, two thousand dollars designer bags, and black hair dyed with fashionable light brown speckles, Kim didn’t look like your average child beggar, risking her life to reach South Korea in three separate occasions, losing her father in one of those.
I was living in Seoul, South Korea for 3 years already when I met her at a language exchange gathering. She wanted to practice her limited English, I needed to practice my shitty Korean. She cornered herself, looked timid, almost scared of the entire situation but never decided to leave, she was determined to lose her fear to speak with foreigners. My Latino blood kicked in, I approached her and I offered a drink: “masil laeyo?” I asked. She replied, “Yes, please”. After some liquid courage, we talked more relaxed and less intimidated by each other’s language barrier but she never told me her unfortunate misadventure; is very difficult to be wide open about your North Korean background, in a homogeneous culture separated by political views.
After WWII Korea was split in half between two rival superpowers, the North to be administered by the Russians and the South by the Americans. More than 70 years have passed and now South Korea is one of the most vigorous economies in the world, while North Korea remained isolated and is economically underdeveloped pushing many North Koreans to defect for political, ideological, religious, and economic reasons.
That night she gave me her Katok (an abbreviation of “Kakao Talk”, the Korean equivalent of Whatsapp) and we met for a second time for a date. Always nervous and suspicious, Kim and I spent a wonderful night drinking and talking about our background. When I told her I am Guatemalan and I am a multimedia artist fighting to thrill in Korea she felt comfortable to be completely honest; she was a North Korean defector and she lived as a child beggar for 3 years.
When Kim was little her parents made it to the South, practically leaving her by her own devices. She ended up living on the streets, begging for food or money at the point of eating frogs and dragonflies. Fixing her make-up almost by instinct she tells me she loves food and wanted to write a book. She describes to me the time she missed the opportunity to flee to the South because she couldn’t run after eating too much as a result of famishing for days.
She smiles and reaches for my soju cup to serve me a shot. Her classy smirk hides all the misfortunes she experienced. She’s strong, built strong, “life-strong”. The most common strategy is to cross the Chinese border, either walking or crossing the river that separates them. As soon as they arrive in China they either have to find a place to hide or go to another country before fleeing to South Korea because also China hates defectors and they sent them back to the North to find themselves either working at a concentration camp or death.
When she finally arrived in South Korea, Kim was interrogated and placed into supervision, interrogating her for 4 months. The two Koreas are still at war and any person from the opposite country is seeing as an enemy until proven otherwise. In this case, Kim was suspected of being a North Korean spy.
“Please don’t be afraid if men are following us or follow you for some time.”
We got more serious as time went by, seeing each other more often. One of these times she tells me: “Please don’t be afraid if men are following us or follow you for some time.” Two weeks after we started dating I could feel people staring at me more than usual. I found out North Korean spies not only are from the nation itself, but some others are also recruited following the communism doctrine. A few years back a North Korean spy was caught in the middle of a Korean language program at a very prestigious Korean university, and he was from Malaysia. Although I didn’t feel threatened, I was a little bit concern about my personal affairs. I was working without reporting it to the government :)
Although now Kim dresses and talks like a South Korean modern girl, don’t let that fool you. With only 1.64cm height, her personality covers what is missing. She became a speaker to banish prejudice in South Korea against North Korean defectors after she got recognition by participating in a famous South Korean cuisine T.V. show. By the time we stop seeing each other, she was writing a book about North Korean cuisine and her life-story has been seeing around the globe, opening her to new opportunities. Her final goal is to find her dad, who got caught helping her escape. He is presumed dead or working at a concentration camp.
Living in Korea as an ex-pat gave me the opportunity to meet amazing people from other countries, each one of them with dazzling experiences, stunning cultural peculiarities, and adventures to share, to celebrate. Take this note of my life as a request to see each culture with respect and love, instead of fear and instigation. Kim, it’s been seven years since we met and departed away, if someday you read this, I hope you are doing good and thank you for all our lovely experiences!