The night was as frozen as the Yalu river on which Ji-woo was currently treading on. The bitter cold wind whistling in her ears made it impossible to hear the dreaded footsteps. The darkness of the night, which was chosen to make herself invisible, made her jump with fear at the thought of another shadow following her. But determined she was to march on; to a world where life was more than existence, where dreams could turn into reality, and reality wasn’t a nightmare, where she could finally break free.

**********

“Citizens, gather around. As all of you are aware, that the prestige of our Suryong*, our Supreme Leader is our highest priority. It is due to the benevolence of our Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un that we are fed, nurtured and clothed. Is it not because of him that we want of naught? Yet, time again we have encountered some of our own who wish to disregard our great nation and disrespect the accomplishments and might of our Supreme Leader.

Today, we are here to witness the execution of the traitor Han-gil. What is his crime, you ask? The gravest one. Aren’t we aware that defacing any photographs of our Supreme Leader, the one who is our protector, our guardian and our provider, is the biggest offense? Isn’t this a show of utter disrespect towards our leader?

Han-gil is found guilty of the same. While working at our communal farms, all the comrades are handed over the Rodung Sinmun* for their benefit, as you are aware. And what did Han-gil do with the newspaper bearing the picture of our Supreme Leader? He kept his tea-cup on the newspaper during the break, thus leaving dirty marks on the face of our Supreme Leader. Now we ask you.. should he be spared for this disdain he showed towards our Supreme Leader?

We know your answer, because all of you assembled here have the utmost respect and love for our Supreme Leader. And all of you will agree that Han-gil deserves the punishment meted out to him. Nothing less than death will absolve him of his crime.” The loudspeaker blared as a wave of silence swept through the crowd.

Ji-woo, stood there amongst that crowd clutching her mother’s Chima*. Her 12 years old thin frame shook with the controlled sobs, those she could not let out for the fear of the educational camp she would be sent to, for her contravention.

The man tied to the scaffold was her father.

************

That was 2 years ago. But the scene of his execution kept recurring every night in Ji-woo’s sleep. The bullets were fired first on his head, then on his body and then on his knees, and in the end a bundle of flesh and blood collapsed on the ground. That’s when she too had finally passed out.

With her father gone, the meager income of the family had dwindled and they were left starving most of the days. The state rations were not enough to fill the stomachs of the five in the household. The pang of their son’s untimely death and starvation had finally taken the lives of her grandparents. Her mother too was heartbroken and the penury had pushed her towards drastic steps.

Smuggling illegal CD’s of Hollywood movies was a big source of income. And big was the punishment in the event of being caught. Her mother could be sent to the labour camps. The stories from such camps should have been deterrent enough. But the knock of death on their doors was getting louder by each passing day, as she stared in the silent and hungry faces of her children.

It was while conducting this business that Ji-woo’s mother had met the broker. He had been in the business of smuggling people out of North Korea to China and onwards to South Korea. By now, the lies propagated by the North Korean government regarding South Korea had already been busted for Ji-woo’s family. They knew that unlike what was told, South Korea was not filled with homeless people but was much more prosperous. And it was there that they would live their lives in complete freedom.

The government however had made sure that those who were caught leaving the nation had met the same fate as Ji-woo’s father. But still, many were crossing the Yalu river and risking their lives for the dream of freedom. And that dream had found it’s another victim.

***********

The broker had demanded $10000 for transporting any one of the family member to safety. This much money was impossible for Ji-woo’s family and Ji- woo had asked her mother to let go of this utopian dream. But her mother had her mind set. She would make sure that at least Ji-woo crossed over for a better life.

The new business venture of her mother had opened another world to them. They were now aware that not all people who crossed the Yalu river reached South Korea. Some girls who crossed, were sold to Chinese men. What happened to them thereafter was not always known. There were also those, who were caught by the Chinese police and deported back to North Korea. And once here their fates were sealed.

All this and more worried Ji-woo. Also, the thought of leaving her mother and brother alone was unbearable to her. What would happen to them if the authorities found their involvement in her escape?

Yet, her mother persisted. She was getting deep into this and had found in her circles about some Christian organisations who were rescuing North Koreans and landing them to safety in South Korea, where they were granted immediate citizenship. But to contact them she needed a phone with international sim.

Soon through another illegal trader she had acquired a Chinese cellphone with a Chinese sim. Their town Hyeseon being so close to the China border, the reception on these phones was not bad either. Her mother had to climb some trees to get the network but it was worth it.

And through this phone the avenue for the escape of Ji-woo had come into being.

***********

Another year had passed in preparing for Ji-woo’s departure. She had insisted her mother and brother to accompany her, but the brokers through the organisations, had still demanded a fee of $2000 per person, which her mother had promised would be paid to them through the settlement amount obtained in South Korea.

The plan was for Ji-woo to settle in South Korea, earn some more money and help her mother and brother escape later.

So here she was on the frozen Yalu crossing it on foot in the dark of the night, to China where she was told a car would be waiting to take her on her journey to freedom.

*************

Having crossed into the Jilin province of China alone, she was now on her own till the broker contacted her and took her out. Asked to hide in the forests, bordering the Yalu, she sat clutching the cellphone of her mother and waited for the call.

Her heart was thumping in her chest and the sound of it was making Ji-woo nervous. The tears in her eyes and on her cheeks were frozen and she had emboldened her heart for the uncertainty, yet here she was listening to it beat furiously against her rib-cage, threatening to burst out of her body.

Sleep came and went in patches and the visions of her mother and brother hugging her and bidding her good bye never left her. She felt for the packet of poison that her mother had handed her. That was her option if she was caught and was being sent back. Her mother would rather be at peace knowing that her daughter died on her own terms rather than face the firing squad.

***************

The journey via bus to the border crossing at Vietnam lasted more than 4 days. Halting in many cities and with every stop the brokers kept changing, Ji-woo could not bring herself to trust any one of them. At each stop she was worried of being sold to a Chinese man or worse, being caught by the Chinese police. The broker had warned her mother, that there could be chances of the Chinese police asking for sexual favors instead of money, to allow them to cross the border. Her mother had told her to go ahead without any protest. Leaving the hell was more important than living it for one night.

****************

At the Vietnam border town, Ji-woo did lose her virginity and her innocence. She knew now, that she had passed the trial and from here on it would only be physical pains that she will have to endure. Emotional turmoils had ceased for her. She had seen it all in her 15 years of being and there was nothing left that could break her heart. Or was there something? Her family back home had not heard from her, neither she from them.

****************

Another arduous march lay ahead for her, after a back-breaking road journey through Vietnam. Once in Vietnam she and her broker were joined by other defectors who too were looking to move into Laos. And from Laos to Thailand. In the dark of the night, as they crossed two mountains some of her companions had all but given up. Their frail, old hearts were unable to bear the steep climb accompanied with the fear of falling to their deaths. But strong will prevailed and they reached Laos. Safety was still a distant dream for them, as they were boarded in a car to reach the river banks of Mekong, where a boat would take them to the safe shores of Thailand. But the fear of being caught, instead of the charm of freedom was manifesting in them greater than before. So close, yet so far.

****************

Mekong too had decided to test their patience and will, as the river rose in high waves due to the torrential rain. But Ji-woo and the others were the children of God, it seemed. As they caught sight of the shores of Thailand the fear finally gave way to jubilation. They were going to be saved.

The broker, a North Korean defector himself, told Ji-woo that she would now have to turn herself in, to the police. Ji-woo did not want to go through that harrowing experience again and as she readied herself for another physical violation on her body, she was taken by surprise, when she saw her other fellow travelers also leave for the police station. The broker explained that the Thai police, unlike the Chinese would not use her but would put her in jail for few hours for an immigration violation, before contacting the South Korean embassy who would then make arrangements for their travel to Seoul. Freedom at last.

*****************

Seoul. After 3 years.

Breathing in the fresh and crisp autumn air, Ji-woo headed towards the salon where she was employed as a hairdresser. Life in Seoul had been, as she had expected, at times even better. She was well fed, had a small apartment provided by the Christian organisations which she shared with some other defectors and lead her life independently.

Yet, today the fear had gripped her heart once again. Her mother and brother were making their journey to this side of the world, to freedom, today.

Will they be able to break free?

****************

*Suryong- Supreme Leader

*Rodung Sinmun – Official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Worker’s party of Korea

*Chima- North Korean skirt

Author’s note: The story is an amalgamation of many true North Korean defector stories, which the writer has researched looking at videos and reading them online. About 1000 to 1500 people defect from North Korea every year for a better life in South Korea. At the present moment roughly 32000 North Korean defectors are accounted for staying in South Korea. And many are in hiding in China and other countries. 71% of the defectors are women.

***

This is an entry for the event #BreakFree, ArtoonsInn’s signature Short Story Writing event, #ArTales-16.
Check out event guidelines here: https://artoonsinn.com/break-free-artales-16-open-event/

Check out Divisha’s space here: https://artoonsinn.com/author/divishaagrawalmittal/

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Written by Divisha Agrawal Mittal

Divisha Agrawal Mithal is currently a stay at home Mom, based in USA. She was a Banker by profession in her earlier stint in the corporate world. She is an avid reader, who loves to read historical fiction. Writing is fairly new to her, she is still learning the ropes of this creative field.