ANSEONG, South Korea—The hundreds of North Korean children and teenagers who now defect every year to South Korea were born after Pyongyang's Stalinist system began to collapse, some during the worst years of a food shortage believed to have killed up to 2 million people.
Many are orphans, all are stunted from malnutrition, and most have missed months or years of school as a result of North Korea's collapsing system and time spent illegally transiting through China and other third countries.
At the government-funded Hangyoreh Middle High School, a three-year-old remedial boarding school for more than 200 North Korean teens, courses include core academic subjects as well as life skills and arts, including creative writing.
Hangyoreh principal Gwak Jong-moon has collected poetry written under pseudonyms by the students and published it in a Korean-language volume titled "The Moon Is Up." With his kind permission, Radio Free Asia has translated these poems into English for the first time and will publish them in several parts.
Deceptively simple in style, these poems convey stark, poignant scenes from the students' own lives, including loss, separation, and hunger. The title of the collection alone evokes the clandestine nature of their journey to South Korea, of young lives lived in shadow to avoid arrest and repatriation to swift and certain punishment in North Korea.
Part I: The Letters I Could Never Send
When Will That Day Come?
By Hong Soo Young
Seasons never stop and just go by
This year again, fall is upon me
How come the wall of separation
Is not crumbling down yet
With fall, the foliage comes
The foliage gone, white frost is everywhere
Seasons go by in vain
How come the frost filling my soul
Will not thaw
When will the day come, the day of the rallying cry of unification
The day that will thaw
The frost filling my soul
That day is approaching, one day at a time
The day I will meet my beloved family
Is not too far away
Will that day only
Thaw the frost filling my soul
I wish for that day to come, I wish to greet the day
That will thaw the frost filling my soul
And replace it with warmth and coziness.
To The One
By Park Ok Sun
The One who makes me laugh
The One who makes me cry
The One who makes me happy
Why does The One just keep giving me
By what grace does The One just keep giving me
I gain my strength from The One
I gain my faith from The One
The One is my home, my safe haven
I live my life in The One’s light
I don’t know how I can ever repay The One for all this brightness
I doubt a lifetime will be enough to repay The One
When I grow up and try to repay for this brightness
The One will be gone from this world
Since God cannot look after each and every one of us
He sent her to this world
The One that God sent is my mother
Troubled that she could not give to all the children of this world
All she has ever known in this world is to give
All the children of this world can tell her is
I love you, and I am sorry.
Thoughts of My Father
By Song Man Hyuk
I did not know before.
I did not know my father’s warm love.
I did not know my parents’ heartache
When they turned around to hide their tears
As they had to raise that stick
To straighten me up,
To avoid becoming the mockery of others
I didn’t know their heartache,
And just cried bitter resentful tears.
The father I resented then,
Now I miss him like a newborn longs for its mother.
I miss him dearly, and days feel like years,
I am steeped in thoughts of my father.
Lamenting that we could not even once
Properly look each other in the eye
Counting the days till unification on my fingers…
That is our wish, always
That the wall of separation would crumble
Memories, kept alive through sorrowful tears
The day we can shout out loud
Shout the cry of unification
That is the day we await
And eagerly long for
The day of unification.
The Warm Embrace
By Hong Eun Hee
When I was little, I did not know
The warmth of my mother’s embrace
Now I know
The worth of my mother’s embrace
My mother’s embrace, that I now miss
My mother’s embrace, that I dream of
The day that I get back
My mother’s embrace,
Could that day come, it’s all that I ask for.
The day somebody longs for my embrace
And receives it with a warm heart
Even though it may not be as warm as my mother’s embrace
It will bring warmth to a corner of my soul.
Translated from Korean by Greg Scarlatoiu. Edited and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.