The Generations

January 23, 2011
By , Platteville, WI
My name is Kim Cho Hee and I am a prisoner in North Korea. This is the story of me and my family.

My family is from the North Korean province of Kangwon-do. For the sake of my family's privacy, I am going to use American names throughout the rest of this story. Before my great grandfather, Mark, and my great grandmother, Ruth, lived in North Korea, my great grandfather worked in the fields in the Korean kun (in America, they are called counties) of Kosong. Six days a week, he would wake up when the sun rose and work the rice fields on the mountain sides of Kosong.

When Korea divided in 1945, my great grandfather and his family stayed living in the province of Kangwon-do. The part of Kangwon-do that they lived in was in North Korea and they chose to live in North Korea because life looked very promising here. After all, their family was from here and they didn't want to leave. The leader of North Korea, who at the time was President Kim Il Sung, promised work and a prosperous life to all those who lived in North Korea. My great grandfather was forty one at this time. My great grandmother was thirty seven and they had already had a family that included a son, my grandfather, William, who was seventeen years old at the time, and a daughter, my great aunt, who was fourteen years old and whom I never met.

As my grandfather grew older, he realized that he couldn't earn a comfortable living as a field worker any longer. This was when my grandfather decided to try to go to college. However, once he realized that he couldn't afford college, my grandfather decided to join the military. It was 1950 and William was twenty-two. When he was younger, him and his friends had learned and practiced Taekwondo, which they had learned from an older man in the village, which automatically helped him to move up in the ranks.

However, after four years, he decided to leave the military. My great grandparents recalled the night he came home, which they told to my parents and they then passed on to me. It was the middle of the night and my grandfather showed up at the door. My great-grandfather, who was fast asleep, kept laying in bed thinking that it was probably just a drunkard. A few minutes later, when the door opened, my great-grandfather got out of bed to see who it was. My grandfather stood in the door. He was soaking wet and had the most astonished look on his face. His father, confused, thought that since it was the middle of the night, he was only dreaming and he then went back to bed. When him and my great-grandmother woke up the next morning, they went outside and saw their son sitting straight up against the wall, still awake, with the astonished look on his face. When my great-grandfather tried to talk to him, his son didn't say anything and when he tried to make him move, he wouldn't. Eventually, they gave up and went on with their day. It wasn't until two nights later that my great-grandmother was finally able to convince him to come inside.

My family doesn't talk much about those days after that happened. My grandfather, after four months of sitting in the house with blank looks on his face and practically being fed by his mother, was finally able to manage to get on with his life. Though he would rarely talk and would never smile anymore, his parents were able to arrange a marriage between him and another woman, Sarah, whose father also worked in the rice fields with my great-grandfather.

My grandfather, still not wanting to work in the rice fields, decided to try clamming. Six mornings a week, he would wake up at sun rise, wade out into the waters of the Sea of Japan, and would cast a line to catch clam. At first, he wasn't skilled at it, but then after some careful practice and staying out in the waters until the sun went down, he became a master at it. Every day, he would have enough to help feed him and his father and mother and sometimes, he would even have enough to sell to the people of the village.

It was after this successful business venture that William and Sarah decided to have their first child. However, six months into her pregnancy, my great-grandfather died. My grandfather, greatly saddened by this, went into mourning for months. It wasn't until the day their baby was born that my grandfather finally spoke again. This time, he had a smile on his face. It was the first time my grandmother had ever seen him smile. They were lucky and had a baby boy, whom they named Richard and who would one day become my father.

One month after the baby was born, my great-grandmother died. Though it was sad she died, these months surrounding the birth of my father were still the happiest days of my family's lives. My grandfather was able to make enough money to feed the family and they even had enough money left over to buy some luxuries, such as electricity for the house.

This was when my grandfather and grandmother decided to try to have another child. However, three months into the pregnancy, my grandmother had a miscarriage and lost the baby. My grandfather blamed himself and it was at this time that he went back into his time of silence. At this time, my father was eight years old and attending school. However, after this, my grandmother didn't know what to do, so she pulled my father out of school, saying that he would be sent back to school when his father was better. This time, it took four years. My grandfather would sit in his room all day, where my grandmother would also be for most of her days. After four years of my grandmother taking care of him, doing things such as feeding him and bathing him, my grandmother was finally able to coax him out of his room.

My father was sent back to school, though he was very far behind in his education. He was twelve years old and he had the education level of a three year old. It was at this time that my grandmother and grandfather decided one last time to try to have another child. This time, they had another son, whom they named Tom. However, my grandmother died during birth. It was this time that my grandfather could no longer take it. One week later, my father woke up and he had an eerie feeling in his stomach. After he checked his father's room, he left his brother asleep in the house and went out into the town to see if anyone had seen his father. They found his body floating in the sea. My father had become an orphan at the age of twelve.

This is when my father had to become a father to his brother. Every day Richard would wake up and take care of his younger brother. For the first four years of Tom's life, Richard would spend his days taking care of Tom. Unable to both have a job and take care of Tom, Richard would spend every day that he could down by the water trying to fish for clams while Richard would play in the water. It was barely enough for them to get by. Richard was barely able to catch enough clams every day to feed the family, so they had to get rid of some things people take for granted, such as the electricity in their home.

Finally, when Tom was four, Richard was able to send Tom off to school. During the time that Tom was in school, Richard was finally able to make a decent income. He decided to stay as a clam fisherman, since he knew that trying anything else would be a risk to Tom and his lives. Every day, Richard would walk Tom to school with his fishing equipment in tow. After dropping Tom off, Richard would go out to the waters and catch clam. While Tom learned, Richard would stand in the waters and try to catch clam. An hour before school would end, Richard would then take his clams back to his house and walk back to the school and pick up Tom. Richard was finally making enough money to help support his brother. This routine was done for the next ten years. When my father was twenty two, he met a woman who could make him happy, my mother. Together, they worked to raise my uncle. During this time, my father and mother had my brother, Noah, me, and my sister, Mia.

When my Uncle Tom was seventeen, he decided to join the military. Furious, my father and mother tried to talk him out of it. I was only three years old at the time, yet I still remember the arguments they had. I could sense the fear in my father's voice as he attempted to talk him out of it. However, this was to no avail. Four months after my uncle joined the military, we found out that he died. Due to the government, we didn't know what the details were behind his death or how he died. We didn't even get to see his body.

This was when my father first talked about escaping from the country. My mother was strongly against the idea and she said that he would get caught, but my father didn't listen. One day, he left the house and never came back. The next day, the North Korean military came to our house and took me, my mother, Noah, and my sister Mia. Because of North Korean laws, if one family member commits a crime, then the entire family is punished.

This is how I ended up here, in this cell. Every day, my mother, Noah, Mia, our mother, and I all work in the labor camps. If anyone doesn't do an adequate enough job, they will be beaten. I had to witness multiple beatings and had to endure many myself. But the hardest one of all was seeing my mother being beaten from being too exhausted to work. After that day, we never saw her again. It is assumed that we will never see our father again.

After three months of starvation and being beaten, my brother Noah comes up with the idea of trying to escape from prison. However, we are careful in talking about it. Anyone who gets caught so much as whispering it by one of the guards will be executed immediately. It takes us two weeks to have our plan in place. We all work the fields outside the prison every day. Noah has decided that when the guards aren't looking, we will escape through the fence. We have noticed that there is a hole in the fence that we think is just barely big enough for Noah to fit through. We do not think that this will be too difficult to do, especially since there are only four guards in one tower at the fence and two guards supervising everyone's labor. Because the guards want us to work faster, they do not bother putting chains on us.
At this time, Noah is fourteen, I am twelve, and Mia is only seven. Our plan is for Noah to run when he has the chance and then I will carry Mia and follow him as fast as I can. When Noah has his chance, he runs. Mia and I are on his heals. We reach the fence and Noah stops to let Mia and I through first. We go through but when Noah tries to fit through, he gets stuck. Yelling at us to run and telling us he will catch up, I run as fast as I can, with Mia in my arms, who is screaming. A few seconds later, we hear gunfire and one last yell from Noah.

When I can't run any longer, I set Mia down and collapse. The prison is no longer in our sight and knowing that we are safe from immediate danger, Mia and I sleep. We wake up the next morning, shivering yet alive. For the next ten hours, we walk and walk. We walk south, hoping that we are in or near South Korea. After ten hours, we reach a small village. We ask the villagers where we are and they say that we are in South Korea. Mia and I are relieved and we almost faint from happiness. For the next several weeks, Mia and I stay in the small village, while the people work together to help us regain our strength back. A family that is from Seoul then comes into the village and says that they would be willing to adopt Mia and I. They say that they are from Seoul but they are planning on immigrating to the United States and that they have already been given their visas. Mia and I accept and four months later, Mia and I are living in the United States with our new family. Though it is a new and very different life than Mia and I are used to, we slowly adjust. Together, we live on, in memory of our family.

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