SEOUL, Korea—What makes a North Korean of relatively privileged status leave her home country and strike out into the unknown?
For an herbal medicine doctor who calls herself Kim Jin Hui, it began in July 1994 with the death of North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung.
Kim Jin Hui was 28 at the time. When Kim Il Sung, known in North Korea as the Great Leader, died, Kim Jin Hui’s father declared that life had lost its meaning.
“For my father, the sun had disappeared from the sky,” she says.
The day after the leader’s death, Kim Jin Hui’s father, a loyal member of the ruling Korean Worker’s Party, vowed to refuse all food and water. Over the next month, he starved himself to death.
Before he died at age 66, however, he sent his daughter with a letter to inform Worker’s Party officials that he was taking his life in honor of the Great Leader and leaving his only daughter as “a gift” to the party.
For my father, the sun had disappeared from the sky.
According to Kim Jin Hui’s account, a party official complimented her on her father’s loyalty. But her father’s wish that she be given party membership wasn't granted.
Though her father went ahead with his commitment to starve himself to death, he also apparently sensed that something was wrong.
He had spent some time in China and seemed aware that a better life might be possible for his daughter. A life outside North Korea.
In a handwritten note, he urged his daughter to escape from North Korea when she had the chance.
Kim Jin Hui’s experience working as a doctor in a provincial “People’s Hospital” in the northern part of North Korea also led her to question the system. She was shocked to see that a number of three- and four-year-old children in the hospital failed to get any medical treatment and were dying of malnutrition.
“It made us feel desperate,” Kim Jin Hui says.
And while free medical treatment was promised to all North Koreans, patients in the hospital couldn't obtain medicine unless they went to the market and bought it themselves. The hospital was bare of medical supplies.
In 1999, at age 33, Kim Jin Hui decided to travel to China. Police and soldiers stopped her near the border. They let her go, she says, after she gave them two packs of cigarettes. She thinks it helps that as a doctor she had a relatively high social standing in the North Korean class system.
Kim Jin Hui picked the unlikely hour of 9 a.m. to cross the Tumen River into China. She calculated that this would be a good time because the North Korean border guards tended to nap at that time following their breakfast. And so she crossed without impediment.
She arrived in a small Chinese border village, which looked almost deserted. No one in the streets. House doors closed.
Suddenly an old woman opened one of the doors.
“Who are you?” asked the woman. “What do you want?”
The woman spoke Korean. She was an ethnic Korean who had lived for many years in China.
Kim Jin Hui was speechless. She had been holding back her feelings. But at this moment, she felt a torrent of emotion.
“I just cried,” she says, recalling her encounter with the elderly lady, who took Kim Jin Hui into her home and cared for her for several days.
Kim Jin Hui was then able to locate her late father’s sister in a small town in the countryside, and she stayed with her for a few months.
Then her luck ran out, since the Chinese police in the town could easily detect strangers. They threw her into jail. At night, they chained her to a radiator.
Kim Jin Hui’s relatives got her out of jail by bribing the police. Her release cost them 3,000 yuan (nearly U.S. $400).
Finally, she made her way to Beijing. She worked as a cook in a guesthouse and sold lunch boxes outside the gates of a university. She also got to know a visiting South Korean professor, who found her a job cooking and cleaning.
She began to read South Korean publications for the first time and realized that South Koreans enjoy vastly better living conditions than their North Korean counterparts. She made her way to South Korea.
Looking back on her three years in China, Kim Jin Hui says, “Compared with the experience of other North Korean defectors, it was not all that hard.”
For one thing, she had escaped the criminal gangs that traffic in women in China.
Radio Free Asia has reported extensively on widespread trafficking in women from North Korea into China, where they are sold to “husbands,” many of whom beat them and treat them as virtual slave laborers.
But Kim Jin Hui’s later experience in South Korea was also difficult. She discovered that her medical studies at one of North Korea’s best universities counted for almost nothing. She had to retrain to qualify for South Korean medical examinations.
She has two more years to go with her medical studies in South Korea, funded in part by subsidies from the South Korean goverment.
In the meantime, she has begun broadcasting regular commentaries on herbal medicine for Radio Free Asia under the pseudonym Kim Jin Hui.
Reported by RFA executive editor Dan Southerland. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.