WASHINGTON, March 18, 2003--Jang Gil-su, the teenaged defector whose grim drawings of life in North Korea have made him an international celebrity, this week began reading excerpts of his memoirs for a series of Radio Free Asia (RFA) broadcasts to North Korea.
In his first broadcast, Jang, now 19, described his return from China to North Korea in 1999 in a bid to bring family members to safety across the border: "'How often do you visit China?' one of two North Korean officers asked. 'When did you go there? Did you eat rice and pork?' I told them I had never visited China--that we were out scavenging for food. 'Why are your clothes wet?' they asked. I said we were trying to catch fish. Then they punched us and called us liars. We were led to the border security office... The police approached me like wolves. They will all get promotions, I thought, for capturing more escapees."
Jang's memoir, "The Rainbow I Painted With My Tears: A refugee boy's story in his own words and drawings," was published by Moonhak Soochop (Seoul). It remains available only in Korean and has never been broadcast previously. Jang's readings for RFA's Korean service will continue for approximately one month.
Jang, who fled North Korea in 1999 at age 15, became famous in South Korea following publication there and in the U.S. media of his chilling crayon drawings, which depict horrific abuses by North Korean authorities against North Korean civilians.
His family, living in Hoeryeong, North Hamgyeong Province, crossed the Tumen River into China in January 1999. They lived briefly in China with the help of ethnic Koreans there and South Korean human rights activists. Some were caught and repatriated as part of a Chinese crackdown on North Korean refugees.
Risking arrest and execution, Jang returned to North Korea twice to try to smuggle out more of his relatives. In June 2001, Jang and six relatives were granted asylum at the UNHCR office in Beijing, while three more relatives traveled to Seoul through third countries. Jang's mother, Chung Sun-mi, was caught by Chinese police and sent back to North Korea in March 2000. Relatives say she was handed over to the State Security Agency, which is known to impose harsh punishments.
North Korea's economy has been in freefall since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, and up to 2 million people are believed to have died of hunger there since 1995. As many as 300,000 North Koreans are believed to have fled to China, where they are forced to live underground and are subject to grave abuse. A small number have obtained political asylum by crashing through the gates of foreign missions in China.
In response to escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, RFA in January doubled its Korean-language broadcasting to North Korea from two to four hours daily.