13 May 2014

North Korean defector: 'I saw people dead on the street'

A mother and son, who face execution in North Korea, say they fled the country because they were always hungry.

A mother and son, who face execution in North Korea, tell Channel 4 News they fled the country because they were always hungry.

In north east China, we met a pair of defectors shortly after they had crossed the border. We found them in a safe house on a desolate stretch of road, looking drained and nursing badly frost-bitten feet. A mother called Young-Hee Park and her son Jae-Woo had been smuggled across the border, into China.

Jae-Woo spent 10 years in the army. Upon his release, he tried to find work as a driver. He told Channel 4 News: “Any type of car, whatever I could get, I would drive. If there was a better car somewhere I went there, if it paid better I went there.” He was not paid in cash. Instead, he received roughly 25kg of rice per month – but it was not sufficient to feed both himself and his mother.

Read more: risking near-certain death to escape from North Korea

He said: “It was not enough. I made sure my mother had food but if there wasn’t enough we would eat whatever we had, even if it was small.”

Jae-Woo recalled one job, driving for a senior party official and described the daily routine: “He always carries a billiard stick. He carries that stick all the time and he has US currency that in takes out of his pocket. In the morning, he goes to play billiards. Then he goes to have his lunch and afterwards he has a sauna.

“Later, he goes to the construction site because he is chief of the (construction) department and he inspects it. He says to me, ‘you go fill up the fuel tank’, so I go and fill it up and he tried to shout at me.

“When I come back I can see him shouting at men on the construction site and then he gets in his car and goes home.”

Jae-Woo said his boss was often greeted with a variety of gifts upon his return.

“Although he didn’t do much, when he got home he found a pile of things including liquor, cigarettes, food and meat that had been brought to him by people who wanted to bribe him – even cash to secure his favour. In return he would let those people could do whatever they want,” he said.

Jae-Woo said there was a clear division between ordinary workers like himself and members of the North Korean Workers’ Party.

“They do not consider their sub-ordinates to be equal human beings. They think that the reason why some poor bastard is poor has nothing to do with them, ‘It is not because of me,’ (they say)”.

The former driver characterised his boss’s attitude like this: “If is your fault, because you are stupid, so if I ask you to come and lick my feet, then you have to do it, because you are stupid. They don’t treat poor people as human beings.”

Survival in North Korea

Young-Hee and Jae-Woo said they were always hungry. In fact, chief amongst the reasons given they gave for their escape attempt was lack of food. Young-Hee said she had seen many people starve: “Yes I saw a lot, in the village many people died. I watched the neighbours. They didn’t have anything to eat. Their life was very hard. I saw many people starving. Malnutrition comes first then they develop complications and die. I saw people dead on the street.”

If North Koreans want to travel beyond their home communities they need to secure permission from the government. However, Jae-Woo’s job as a driver meant he was able to see more of the country than most. He was struck by large numbers of homeless children – orphans in Jae-Woo’s words – trying to survive on the streets.

Read more: Is Kim Jong-un facing a North Korean revolution?

“The orphans live outside so they have frost bite and they don’t get any treatment. They take them to hospital and cut off their feet. Before there weren’t many (of them) but now there are lots.

“The kids need to walk around but they don’t have feet so they put stumps on the bottom and tie it with string. They (have to) walk on their knees because they don’t have any feet.”

Jae-Woo said there had been a large increase in their number.

“Suddenly there are many more. More kids like this after Kim Jong-Un came in. Even I don’t have much but they are begging from me. I was better off than them so I would give them a bit and then they are happy.”

Both Young-Hee and Jae-Woo talked about the dangers of watching television programmes from South Korea.

“At home there are no TV programmes from overseas. If they catch you watching (one) they put you in prison. They execute people for watching South Korean movies,” said Jae-Woo.


Shortly before their escape from North Korea, the pair were required to attend a public execution in their home town. “Two were executed – one (for) watching a South Korean movie and the other one was dealing drugs. Ordinary people are not allowed memory sticks, they say that if you have one then you are watching overseas TV.”

We asked Jae-Woo whether he and his mother had noticed any differences in the country after Kim Jong-un took charge following the death of father Kim Jong-Il.

“There isn’t much difference. If there are changes, maybe some more buildings. Living conditions have got worse. If there is construction all the people have to volunteer and we have to donate the money too. (The government) does not pay for it. The sand, the cement, the steel foundations, all of this the people have to provide.”

(Young-Hee Park and her son Jae-Woo are now in Seoul where they are receiving medical care and support at the South Korean government’s resettlement centre. Soon, they hope to move in with the rest of their family)

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