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
By Choi Young Mee
I close my eyes
The clock hands running backwards
Blank stare, sad eyes
Cold wind biting my chest
Drawing a suspended image
I wonder who spilled
The ink drenching the night sky
It must have been my spitting image, a twin
Overwhelmed with emotion
At the pitch black night sky I gaze
Again, I look up
Capturing my attention
Is warmly drawing near
I clasp my hands together,
I hold it,
Will the ink spill
I wrap it up in white cloth
And seed it deep into my soul.
By Park Eun Shil
The wind is blowing over mountain after mountain,
Softly whispering a song into my ear
Today the wind is growing stronger
Stabbing my cheeks
Digging into my flesh
It curls around me, my ears hurt
Blowing chills, it’s riddling me with stings, I’m going numb
My eardrums are bursting
The wind is hurting me so bad
My soul is beginning to hurt
If it’s my face that’s being whipped by the wind,
Why is it my soul that hurts?
Shooting up in the sky, a soccer ball
For no reason
There was a time when my father and I used to play
Today, I am playing soccer alone, I imagine I’m playing
The severe father I hated to see
Now that I see that soccer ball shooting up
I remember my father’s face
That memory is gone in an instant, gone with the wind
With the soccer ball, it flies
Far away, into the western sky.
By Choi Mok Ran
Father is daddy.
Just like any other father,
He is silly enough to think
That his daughter is the prettiest in the whole wide world.
Father is happiness.
The times I spent with my father were happy, and without my father
A piece of my happiness is gone.
Father is a demon.
Father hit mother savagely, father beat mother to death.
Father is a nightmare.
If I think of my father, I remember my mother’s face
Soaked in tears and blood
Father is father.
I resent him, I never want to see him again, but
Father is my father.
I cannot deny him, in this world
He is my one and only father.
The Picture I Remember
By Han Bok Keum
As I gaze at the full moon, far, far away
I long for my mother’s smiling face
In my dream, I dash towards our beloved home.
Sitting together in the warmest spot of the small and dark room,
Looking at the moon in the night sky,
Mother tells us the story
Of the fifteen boys.
Fifteen boys got on a ship and sailed away
Sailed too far, got lost in a storm,
And never made it back home.
It is a song one sings
While gazing at the moon shining bright
While longing for the mother
Welcoming her children, with open arms.
Three sisters lying down, next to each other,
Waiting for father to come back from work
One line, one stanza at the time,
Three sisters lying down and singing together
All seems like the one picture I remember.
The picture I remember
Every time I gaze at the moon in the night sky.
Translated from the Korean by Greg Scarlatoiu. Edited and produced in English by Joshua Lipes.