This week, MyLittleBird begins presenting a Friday excerpt from a new book, fiction and nonfiction, that we think will interest our readers. This excerpt is from the memoir of a young woman now living in South Korea, recounting her early life in North Korea, the horrendous famine of the 1990s and her nine years of hiding with her mother and sister. A Thousand Miles From Freedom: My Escape From North Korea was written under a pseudonym, with help from French journalist Sébastien Falletti, and was published this past week by St. Martin’s Press ($24.99; you can buy it here). In this excerpt Kim describes her escape, on foot at age 12, to China.
DURING THAT FRIGID NIGHT, a pale glow hung over the trees. At the top of the hill, a wisp of gray smoke rose up in the air until it faded into the darkness. [My mother, sister and I] walked closer to the source of the smoke, since we needed to stay warm. We climbed through the forest toward this mysterious glowing fire. It was bitterly cold out, and the strong February winds slapped me in the face. Around the small fire, we were slowly able to make out two crouched figures: a man and a young girl. After seeing how desperate they looked, I thought that maybe they were trying to do the same thing we were–escape the country. My mother started talking to the man, and he confirmed what I suspected. That night, with his daughter, who was even younger than I was, he was planning to risk it all to leave North Korea.
“The ice is hard enough. I’ve seen people crossing it,” he told us [referring to the Tumen River, which formed the border with China].
Finally, some good news.
“But it’s better to wait until the early morning,” he advised us. “The guards don’t patrol as much then.”
We were almost at the top of a hill that looked out over the Tumen River. It was the perfect spot to observe the border guards as they walked back and forth. Right in front of us, through the darkness, was China. Our last chance. Our last obstacle was to cross this frozen river, patrolled by guards armed with guns and with instructions to shoot on sight. Hours passed by. My anxiety started to build. I remembered our previous failure. What if this time the soldiers shot us down?
Five hours later, the riverbanks were eerily calm. There was no one in sight. It was our sign to take off. Silently, the five of us headed down the hill, through the forest, toward the Tumen. There were still no guards in sight. The man tested the ice using his foot, to make sure that it really was frozen. The ice appeared solid, covered with a thin blanket of snow. As a precaution, we walked single file, several meters away from one another, to spread our weight evenly along the ice. My mom was the first, followed by [my sister] Keumsun, then the man and his young daughter. Finally, I started trekking as well. I was the last and did not dare turn back. Behind my back, the ink-black night looked like it was going to snatch me away. I imagined a border guard appearing at any moment and shooting at us. We only had about a hundred meters to cross, but it felt like an eternity. What would happen if I was the only one who didn’t make it to the Chinese side? My heart still pounding, I started moving faster. Suddenly, I lost my balance. I fell several times while crossing over this slab of ice. As a result, we started walking more slowly, at a turtle’s pace, much slower than we had planned. The light of dawn was already starting to surface. We had to hurry. Just a few more meters to go. I caught up to everyone else, and thought that we were safe.
In reality, we were merely on a small islet on the river. We still had to cross several meters on the other side of the river, where the ice looked less solid.
From there, we rearranged our order. The little girl, the lightest, was to start, with me behind her. Timidly, she approached the other side. Suddenly, we heard a huge cracking sound. The young girl had just sunk through the ice right before our eyes. We started panicking and began to head back to the islet. Her legs were submerged up to her knees. She started screaming.
“Have you reached the bottom?” asked her father.
“Yes,” she responded in a frightened voice.
So despite the cold, we started wading through the icy water that burned our skin. We moved forward . . . just a few more meters, and my feet touched China.
We had finally made it.
I stopped to catch my breath, but my wet clothes had already started to freeze.
We took a few moments of rest, but soon fear overtook us again. We had to get as far away from the river as we could, because if the Chinese police found us, they would send us right back to North Korea. I didn’t even want to think about the terrible punishments we would receive back in North Korea if we were caught. We didn’t have a minute to lose. Before us, there were fields of corn stretching as far as the eye could see. We had to pass through these fields as quickly as we could to reach the hills in the forest. But my leg was stiff from the cold and I couldn’t run. Using all the strength I had left in me, I tried to follow my mom’s pace. The hills felt so far away. Finally, after about ten minutes, we made it. I collapsed beneath the trees as the sky began to get light. The sun was shining. It was my first morning outside of my home country.
The first dawn of my new life.
How would the Chinese treat us? I didn’t know anything about this country. Hidden behind the trees, I observed the landscape. On the road below, I noticed some men and women on bicycles. They were most likely off to work. This was the first time I’d ever seen Chinese people. On the other side of the road, there were little houses with gardens. This seemed to confirm what our neighbors had told us: China was a rich country. In North Korea, it was rare to own a house, because people usually lived in apartment buildings. I found this new world both strange and fascinating. As a child, I never would have believed that one day I would leave my country behind.
From A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape From North Korea. Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.