North Koreans Cross Icy River and Slip Into a New World

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: A US national security challenge of a different sort was presented by North Korea this week. Its rocket launch yesterday drew an instant American condemnation. It's a point of national pride for leader Kim Jong-Un. But news from the tightly sealed Communist state remains as scarce as ever. The fake Kim Jong-Un quipped yesterday on Twitter that North Korea proved you can reach any goal if you work hard and never eat. Well, apparently there's a lot of truth to that, as The Guardian's Tania Branigan found out. She recently traveled to China's border with North Korea, where she spoke to five defectors.

Tania Branigan: One woman had been so desperate to get out, having been out before, that she actually ended up wading across the river in the darkness while the waters were coming almost to her neck. She said that despite her hunger and despite the cold and the currents, actually what she was frightened about was getting caught by the guards and either shot on sight or taken to a prison camp.

Werman: Why is life so unbearable in North Korea and why would they take the risk, given how scared they are of getting caught?

Branigan: Most people cross into China not because they are political dissidents, but simply because they're hungry, because they want to feed their families. North Korea has really been unable to feed its people for a long time, and particularly of course there was the devastating famine in the 90s. Now although we aren't seeing those kinds of mass deaths from starvation any more, there's still a lot of excess mortality. There are people dying younger than they should be, there are people suffering from malnutrition. And while there used to be a public distribution system, that's really broken down, so people are really very reliant on markets, some of which are sort of permitted, some of which are not. So they come into China to buy goods to take back, or in other cases they actually come into China to work, often as carers or as housekeepers.

Werman: So these defectors, they actually, some of them, go back to North Korea?

Branigan: Yes, in many cases they go back because they have families there, and obviously if the authorities became aware that they had left, their families would be at risk of retribution.

Werman: The controls and monitoring of citizens in North Korea, aren't they so tight that officials would know who's missing?

Branigan: People were saying, well, you know, I might overstay my visa, but I can usually sort of pay my way back in. You know, we think of corruption as being a bad thing, but in many ways in North Korea, it's actually something of a life saver.

Werman: Now, some of these defectors were elderly and able to compare life in North Korea under three successive rulers: Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-Il, and Kim Jong-Un, the current ruler. What were their most poignant stories about how life there has changed?

Branigan: Well, I think this is what's really striking, because if you look back at the 60s and 70s, it was doing pretty well. Now that's partly, but not only, because it had Soviet aid. But it was industrializing quite fast, it was quite wealthy, and people said, you know, we had rice every day, we'd have candies when Kim Il-Sung's birthday rolled around, we'd get new uniforms. You know, there was a sense that the country was going places and they really did think that it was the best place in the world. So it's a great shock for them when they're now in an era where there's not enough food. They're eating cornmeal, which they hate. There is this sense, I think, even within the North that really the credibility of the regime has been stretched so thinly now.

Werman: Reading your reports, Tania, there seems to be a disconnect between what North Koreans experience on a daily basis and their view of the homeland. You write that the defectors "lament North Korea's bad luck, but never questioned its leadership."

Branigan: Because the North has brought its people up to believe that they are sort of a special people in a way, but also that they've been beset by hostility. Technically, the Korean War never really ended, from the North's point of view. There was an armistice but not a full peace treaty. So the North has really fostered this sense of the country being under attack, and that through bad luck and through the hostility of the outside world, the North really only has itself to rely on. It's very striking that people who'd lost family members, even, sort of didn't really think to blame the government or to ask what the government had or hadn't done, and still looked up to the government. And so the woman who'd actually sort of fled into China by crossing illegally, said you know, it's only really when I came out and I started reading all these things about Kim Jong-Il and about his lifestyle and about the women that he'd had and so forth, and that was the point when I thought, well, how could he do this, and what sort of person is he. And for her, obviously, that was a very powerful and disillusioning experience. Because North Korean propaganda has really centered around presenting the image of the leaders as these parent figures who are caring for the children around them, for the people. Whether people have necessarily liked what they're doing or not, there's been a sense that they're sort of doing this for you. And when that is shattered, I think that is a very powerful and a very painful moment for people.

Werman: Tania Branigan. a reporter for The Guardian newspaper. She recently traveled to China's border with North Korea and spent time with five North Koreans who'd fled their homeland. Tania, really good to speak with you. Thanks.

Branigan: Thank you.