SEOUL—On a bright autumn morning, a group of people gathered outside a subway exit on the outskirts of the South Korean capital before heading off in the direction of Mount Surak, a popular destination for day-trippers.
Eager to see the riot of turning leaves against rugged mountain ranges, they’re dressed casually and look ordinary enough. What’s extraordinary, though, is that this group comprises North Korean defectors who survived one of the world’s most oppressive regimes as well as harrowing journeys to escape.
“While in North Korea, I’d go to the mountains to chop wood, or pick acorns,” 73-year-old Kim Young Sung said during the hike. “There was never time to enjoy the mountain. After all, we had to build socialism, didn’t we?”
Behind him is Kang Chul Hwan, a former political prisoner in North Korea and author of The Aquariums of Pyongyang , which revealed to the world the brutal reality of North Korea’s prison camps.
Kang Chul Hwan now works as a reporter for the Chosun Daily and co-directs the nongovernmental Democracy Network Against the North Korean Gulag.
While in North Korea, I'd go to the mountains to chop wood, or pick acorns. There was never time to enjoy the mountain. After all, we had to build socialism, didn't we?
“Frankly, when I was first invited to go hiking with other North Korean defectors, I didn’t really see the need. However, having lived in South Korea for a few years, I’ve come to realize that hiking is a great way to stay healthy and in good shape,” he said.
“Hiking is also a great way to bring us together and facilitate communication and the sharing of information about our lives and gripes.”
As the group paused to catch its breath, one defector approached another, book in hand, asking for an autograph. The author of the book, Ahn Myong Chul, worked as a guard at a camp for political prisoners for eight years. He escaped from North Korea in 1995.
“The title of my book is Total Control Zone . This is actually my third book. People keep asking me how I find the time to write books, and I just tell them that I drink less and reflect and write a bit more when I’m at home,” he said.
“We were told over and over again: ‘If they attempt to escape or if they are recalcitrant, feel free to shoot them dead; if they won’t listen to you, feel free to beat them up.’ We had no choice but to hit the prisoners,” he recalled.
“If we hadn’t done so, we would have been asked: ‘What now, you’re sympathizing with the prisoners?’ So we were always on their case, and sometimes maliciously found fault with them, just to have a reason to hit them.”
Some analysts regard defectors such as this group as the vanguard of eventual reconciliation between the South and nuclear-armed North, whose heavily armed border now stands as the last Cold War frontier. The two Koreas have never signed a formal peace treaty ending the 1950-53 Korean War, and relations between the two governments remain bitter.
Hoh Kwang Il, who fled North Korea in 1993 after working as a logger in Russia to earn foreign currency for the regime, now heads a nongovernmental defectors’ group working toward Korean reunification.
“People seem to get their worries out of their system and recharge their batteries as they climb up the mountain,” Hoh said, alluding to considerable mental health problems experienced by many North Koreans resettled in the South after psychological trauma and a curtailed or interrupted education in the North.
“I am confident that all participants will socialize more, get to feel more comfortable together, keep their sanity, and stay the right course to better adapt to South Korean society and successfully settle down here,” Hoh said.
Slightly breathless from climbing the steep mountain path, Kim Young Sung felt compelled to share his thoughts on the summit in early October between South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
“On the second day of the summit meeting, Kim Jong Il asked: ‘Are you satisfied?’ That was quite puzzling,” Kim said. “The summit meeting was supposed to be a joint endeavor, with two parties involved. I couldn’t help but think that Kim Jong Il was just trying to patronize the South Korean delegation, basically saying: ‘Now that you’ve met me, you’ll win the elections in the South.’”
Kim said he met two future North Korean prime ministers while studying in Prague. Later, he escaped after a spell in Germany as a dispatched laborer.
Behind him, Kim Yeon Hee, a dancer who used to perform in North Korea’s Sea of Blood opera company and continues to work as a dancer and choreographer in Seoul, said she too appreciates this opportunity for leisure that has been all too rare in her life.
“This is just my fifth time hiking,” she said. “I never got a chance to go mountain climbing in North Korea. If you live in Pyongyang, you have to go to the countryside to find a mountain to climb.”
Two young men walked cheerfully ahead of her. One of them, Chung Chul, is a philosophy major at Sogang University, while the other, Kang Won Chul, majors in business administration at Hanyang University.
Kang is also chairman of the Young North Korean Defectors’ Association for Human Rights, an NGO established by young North Korean defectors attending South Korean universities.
“Most of the people gathered here today are our seniors, but we also have meetings attended mainly by younger people,” he said. “When we get together with our younger North Korean peers, we discuss our thoughts and concerns regarding human rights, democracy, and democratization, but we also talk about our studies, grades, and life in the South.”
Kang has lived in South Korea since 2001, when he arrived via a circuitous route through China with his parents and a younger sibling. “I left North Korea when I had six more months until high school graduation. If I had stayed there and graduated, I would probably still be in the North Korean Army,” he said.
Eventually, someone in the group asked for a break from climbing. It was Lee Hae Young, secretary general of the North Korean Defectors’ Friendship Association, sending word to the hikers at the front of the group.
“Let’s take a break,” he called. “People at the back are having a hard time.”
After four hours of hiking, the group sits down for lunch in a grill and barbeque restaurant. They all order samgyopsal , barbequed slices of pork grilled at the table and eaten with lettuce, sesame leaves, fresh garlic, and chili pepper. A few shots of soju wash it down.
The day marks a radical departure from the famine and brutality so many of the hikers experienced in North Korea. Yet each will need all the resources he or she can muster for their new lives in this modern capitalist economy, where discrimination against North Koreans is common and employment prospects can be grim.
In short, they will need a new sort of juche , the “self-reliance” that has served as Pyongyang’s motto for decades.
On Mount Surak, as the food disappeared, the conversation grew livelier, and the North Korean hiking party raised a toast. “To mountain climbing, and to the lasting friendship and togetherness it fosters!”
Original reporting in Korean by Si Chun. RFA Korean service director: Kwangchul Lee. Translated and researched by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written and produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.