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 Ma Sung Hoon
I am on my way to meeting
I have always wanted to call father,
At least once in a lifetime.
Though 10 years ago we parted,
His voice, his appearance, his memory
What is this tingle
Within my soul?
Following the inspector in charge,
A man enters the interview room
He sits before me.
He says he’s my father.
The man I glanced at,
In village 000
The man I saw then
The feeling I had then
The sense I felt then
I can sense now.
Tears come out from my eyes.
Why do you show up now
I want to say I resent you
Father and I
Together we cry.
Brief shimmer before my eyes then,
That I called family,
The man sitting besides me,
My father he is.
I put on the glasses
My father bought me.
The world looks brighter.
By Kim Jung Shil
I have two mothers
The one who bore me
And the one who brought me up
I seem to have been really happy.
I was separated from my birth mother at age six
It was hard on a six-year-old
I thought that would be the first and last time
I would have to go through a separation.
Ten years later
I went through yet another separation
The parting I was assured would never occur again
I was, I am, so sad
After separation from my birth mother, I had to part from my stepmother.
The woman I treasured even more than my birth mother
I miss her
She gave me the ardent maternal love that my birth mother could never give
She was my angel, the guardian angel who rescued me from the heart of darkness.
I can still sense her bright aura
It will forever shine bright on me
God sent her to me
To save me from a world dark as a cave.
Father, I’m Sorry
By Ryu Kyung
Then, I didn’t know.
What a precious and pleasant man
My father was
When mother was not around
He spared nothing to prevent
A dark shadow from taking over my soul
That is my father’s appearance that I miss the most.
His bright and happy appearance
The longing and solitude have scarred my soul
I am sorry I left
Without even saying goodbye.
Today again, as I think of my father
Alone in the house,
Waiting for my return
Tears fall from my eyes, and sadness overwhelms me.
Just once, just one time at least,
While looking him in the eye
While talking to him
I want to ask his forgiveness.
This daughter, who deserted her father,
This daughter wishes to ask for forgiveness.
I am always remorseful, and I seek my father’s forgiveness.
After coming to South Korea, I haven’t forgotten my father and lived a good life
I am waiting for the day our family is reunited.
And please forgive me, I beg you.
I love you, father.
By Kim Hyang Ran
How can the moon be up there, suspended like that
Can it see into my soul?
Has it come to soothe my longing for mother?
When I look at that bright round full moon shining in the night sky
I see the pure and sincere soul of my crying mother
I see her bright appearance
The moon is gazing at me, it looks like it’s laughing,
I’m happy, it looks like my mother
It will always watch over me
It will never disappear,
Just like a mother watching over me.
Translated from the Korean by Greg Scarlatoiu. Edited and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.