How I Escaped North Korea

Park Ji Woo:

One day, my sister and I had so much fun riding the sled that I didn’t realize my shoes fell off! I looked for them for a long time, but I couldn’t find them. I was freaked out because I knew my mother would be really mad at me. I walked home on bare feet in the snow. When my mother saw me, she said nothing and just wiped my feet because my left heel was bleeding. She put my feet into a container with cold water. That was a well known remedy for frostbite in North Korea because it made your feet warm up fast even though it was really painful. I screamed as the cold water became red with my blood. My mother cried. The next day, she gave me her winter shoes and she wore her flats, which were thin shoes meant for the summer. She didn’t have money to buy new winter shoes for me. That winter, her feet were frostbitten, too.

Since the summer of 1996, the famine went worse than expected. The government still didn’t give us any food. I vividly remember that many people died in the street because of hunger. I saw many children, who were my age, begging for food in Jang-ma-dang (North Korean Market), even stealing food. We only had one meal a day for three months. Even my 6-year-old younger sister, the youngest person in my family, wasn’t spared starvation. One morning, somebody knocked on our door quietly, when my younger sister and I were eating our only meal of the day. I thought that it was my mother, who went to the farm to look for food. I opened the door happily, but who I faced was a short, skinny girl. She looked about 8 years old, same as me. She had a pale and fearful face. Behind her, a little boy was smiling at me. He looked about five years old and had a red, dirty face. They wore ragged clothes. The girl finally said “Would you please lend us some food? We haven’t had anything to eat since two days ago. My parents went to Cheng-jin to get food and said they would be back in 3 days, but they haven’t come back yet. When they come back, we will have food to eat and I can give you back your food. I swear.”

I looked at her earnest face and said “I am hungry, too. I have no food to give you.” I closed the door coldly and locked it quickly. Even though the girl kept knocking the door desperately for a while, we ate all the corn porridge, which was all we had for the whole day. Now I feel sorry for them. Sometimes it makes me cry. I don’t know where they went and if anyone gave them food or not. I hope they met good people who were willing to give them food. However, at that time, sharing food was a crazy behavior for me, and for most North Koreans because everyone clearly knew that one day we would die in the street because of hunger if we didn’t look for and save food as much as we can. We had to compete for getting one more ear of corn. Sympathy was an extravagance for us.