How I Escaped the Army of North Korea

The sky is beginning to lighten; it has to
be near dawn. I jog through the forest. The wind bites through my thin coat. Our uniforms are made to look nice, but are
cheaply made and are poor protection against the cold. I wonder if they’ve noticed that I’m gone
yet? I’ve been walking for hours. I snuck out at midnight after most everyone
had gone to sleep. With my meager savings I bribed the guards
at the gate, but who knows if they will keep to our bargain? Something rustles nearby. I freeze, holding my breath. Is it a patrol? Have they found me? I duck behind a tree. Heart pounding, I strain to hear. If they see me, they will shoot me. I have betrayed them, the fatherland and most
of all our dear leader. I have aligned myself with our capitalist
enemies who are allied with hostile, imperialist America. I am a North Korean soldier defecting across
the DMZ to South Korea. When we were young, my grandfather used to
tell my brother and I stories of his life. How his parents unfairly lost the family farm
during the time Imperial Japan ruled Korea with an iron fist. Grandfather was too young to fight in World
War II, but remembered as clear as day when Soviet tanks rolled down the streets of Pyongyang
after the war during occupation. As a young man, grandfather was drafted into
military service and proudly fought to unify the 2 Koreas. He always pointed out to us that the Korean
Armistice Agreement was only a ceasefire, not a peace treaty. We did not bow to the greedy, capitalist south. We are still at war and we should always be
prepared for the Republic of Korea and the United States to attack us. The rustling gets louder, something large
is coming my way, pushing through the underbrush. I crouch down behind my tree. If a patrol sees me they will not hesitate
to fire. I’m a traitor. Furthermore it’s their duty and they would
be punished if they did not shoot. I don’t blame them; if I was in their position
I would shoot deserters too. I take deep breaths, trying to calm my pounding
heart. After the war, my grandfather spent many long
years manning guard posts at the DMZ, the border buffer zone between the two Koreas. Grandfather passed away when my brother was
9 and I was 12. Did he ever get curious looking through his
binoculars into South Korea? I wonder what he would think of the choices
we have made. For 3 generations, the men in my family have
honorably served the fatherland. I entered the military at 17 years old–right
after graduating high school. I have served for 4 years. If I were to stay, I have another 6-8 years
of mandatory military service ahead of me, for a total of 10-12 years, the longest conscription
terms in the world. My knees ache from crouching, the frost on
the ground dampens my pants. The rustling grows louder still. That noise can’t be soldiers, they’d never
be so loud or clumsy. Could it a bear? Since the war, the borderlands have been restricted
to humans. The DMZ has become a haven for wildlife, even
rare species such as black bears are thriving here. Suddenly a huge musk deer stag crashes out
of the brush. I sag in relief and then continue my hike. I was proud to enlist and serve my country,
but my brother… Since our childhood he has always been stubborn
minded, reckless, I don’t know why. Maybe it was the smuggled American action
movies we saw that put these ideas in his head, but he always insisted that there was
something more out there. That things are not what they seemed and contrary
to what we learned, the Americans were not evil or scary and were not poorer than North
Korea. Of course father scolded and punished my brother
whenever he’d talk that way. The walls have ears Father would say. For a long time I ignored what my brother
said. But slowly I began to see the truth of his
words myself. In school, we spent a lot of time learning
about our dear leaders Kim Il Sung and his successor, his son Kim Jong Il. They were depicted as supreme gods who could
make everything happen. If it came to war, North Korea would win. Our dear leaders would not allow defeat. We have the strongest and best military in
the world. And yet…our troops are hungry. Being stationed near the capital city of Pyongyang,
I eat better than most soldiers, worse than some. Most of my meals consist of potatoes and rice. In rural areas soldiers go scavenging, stealing
from locals to supplement their meager rations. It’s dishonorable to steal, but what can
you do when you’re hungry? Officers turn a blind eye or even encourage
soldiers to loot. They justify it saying the troops are there
to keep citizens safe and everyone must do their part for North Korea. But it isn’t fair, the elite who live in
the capital do not not suffer like the rural citizens who live in the countryside do.They
say we are all comrades and we should work hard, but nepotism determines who lives better
in the city or not. On holidays, all the soldiers march.We have
big parades where troop after troop marches, showing our might to the world. But are we mighty? How are we to win wars when our troops are
faint with hunger? I come to a road in the forest, it’s old
and rutted, clearly unused, but I feel exposed as I cross it. For the millionth time I wonder if they’re
after me? By this time I’ve missed roll call. They’re probably hunting me down like a
dog to make an example of me. A few months ago, our troop conducted a field
test with the South Korean army. At the end of the day, the South Korean leader
shook hands with our leader and gave all the soldiers chocolate snack cakes. He respected us. He did not hate us or think we were stupid
us because we were North Korean soldiers. He was not jealous of North Korean either
like some of our leaders claim. The sweetness of the snack cake lingered on
my tongue long after I had eaten it; my brother would have liked the taste. Birds call to each other in the forest, their
chirping lifts my spirits. Suddenly something clinks underfoot as I walk. I freeze. As a part of a bilateral military accord between
the Koreas to lessen tension, this part of the DMZ has been swept and de-mined. But there’s the chance that they missed
some landmines. Sweat trickles down my spine. What’s under my foot? Why does man want to destroy man? That sounds like a question my brother would
ask. But he is not here, I make this journey because
my brother cannot. After high school, my brother wanted to attend
university. He is very smart and had good grades, but
we didn’t have the family connection to secure him enrollment. My brother declared that he leave the North,
he wasn’t going to serve in the army. He wanted to study. He wanted to watch whatever movies he liked
and read any book he wanted. He wanted to live life as he saw fit. Our father was right, the walls have ears. My brother trusted the wrong person. Just before he was set to leave, they arrested
him on suspicion of being a defector and sent him to re-education camp. I do not know what happened after that, they
took my brother over a year ago. My father was beaten by the authorities as
was I. They like to question and then punish whole
families for the perceived misdeeds of a single family member. My brother is now missing. The authorities say they released him and
he is not at the camp, but he didn’t come home. I have not heard from him. My father was poorly after the beating. He died a few weeks ago. Some would say it that he was sickly and it
was poor health, but it isn’t. My father died of a broken heart. Holding my breath, I gently raise my foot. Either I will live or… I gasp with relief when I see that I just
stepped on an old rusty can, half buried in the dirt. The danger of the DMZ is why most defectors
sneak across the Tumen river, often bribing officials on both sides and go over the border
into China. Once in China they move from safe house to
safe house aided by brokers, then go to sympathetic nations such as Thailand which will then fly
them to South Korea. But using a smuggler is expensive and I don’t
have much money. If I were a woman, they would agree to smuggle
me, forcing me to pay my trafficking debt by selling me as a slave or a bride. Besides, going to China is risky. The Chinse authorities have recently raided
safe houses and cracked down on smugglers. If they catch you they send you back to North
Korea and you go to manual labor or re-education prison camp like my brother did. At camp you are beaten, starved, brainwashed,
made to confess your sins. My heart aches for my brother. I continue on through the forest. I know beginning my life over again in South
Korea will not be easy. Because I am a soldier, I will be interrogated
to determine my motives for defection and for useful information about the army. Assuming I am not a threat, under the Constitution
of South Korea, I will be granted citizenship. I’ve heard that the South Korean government
sends defectors to Hanawon, a residential training school where they teach you to navigate
daily life in South Korea. You also learn history and South’s version
of what happened during the Korean war. I might even be able to find someone who can
get me information on my brother’s disappearance. If he is alive, I will not rest until he is
in South Korea with me. I reach the fence and use a pair of clippers
I stole to make a hole. I kick it open larger with my boot. I crawl through the fence, tearing my uniform. I’ve done it. I’m in South Korea. I wave a white piece of cloth as I jog forward. The South Koreans have probably being watching
me on thermal imaging cameras. Sometimes South Korean troops have shot at
those crossing the border, sometimes not. I do not wish to take any chances. A patrol of South Korean soldiers appears
out of the fog, coming towards me. I am ordered to halt and to put my hands up. Though it’s cold and I’m exhausted and
scared, I smile as I comply. My future is open.