Looking back… the beginning of 20 years of separation
North Korean defector Kim Eun-Hee (a pseudonym to address safety concerns) who currently lives in Seoul, still vividly remembers this day in the spring of 2002 when she left her mother for the first and last time.
“I went to see my mom at night. She came out and asked what’s going on. I just kept saying ‘mom’ over and over, and she asked why I keep repeating ‘mom.’ I felt like if I say anything else besides ‘mom,’ I would start tearing up. So I just said ‘mom, mom’ repeatedly. I didn’t know what else to say.” - Kim Eun-Hee (pseudonym)
Kim said to her mother that ‘if she is nowhere to be found one day, just assume that she married a good man and moved to another city.’
Kim’s mother, who had no clue, told her daughter to hurry back home as it is dangerous at night time.
Kim’s mom turned around and closed the door, and that was Kim’s last moment with her mom.
Thereafter, Kim crossed the Yalu River, stayed in China for a year, and then entered South Korea by way of Vietnam in 2004.
Kim started a new life in South Korea, but her longing for her mother in North Korea grew daily. One day in 2010, Kim was able to talk to her mother over the phone through a broker, and that is when her mother found out that her daughter defected to South Korea.
Receiving the first letter from her mother in 10 years
In December 2019, about 10 years after the last call between the two, Kim received a letter from her mother one day.
This was after a North Korean broker, after many tries, found Kim’s phone number and took a picture of the hand-written letter by Kim’s mother with a Chinese cell phone and sent it to Kim’s cell phone.
Her mother’s letter, written on an old piece of paper, conveyed the hardships of life and had tear marks all over it.
“I wanted to see a picture of my mom so badly. Realizing that my mom is now over 80 years old broke my heart. When I looked at the picture, my mom’s hair was all white, almost going bald -- she was an 80-year-old granny -- but I could say that she aged well regardless.” - Kim Eun-Hee
What was written in the letter was even more heartbreaking for Kim.
Two of her younger brothers had been in some type of accident and taken ill, leaving their elderly mother to take care of them. The last resort for her struggling mother was her daughter in South Korea.
So, the last place the mother reached out was her daughter in South Korea as she had a hard time surviving.
Although Kim has read the letter dozens of times, her voice still trembles as she reads it out loud.
“My mother is over 80 years old and her legs are bad. But she walked three hours just to hear my voice, and she said she had to climb the hill to call because she feared the phone was being tapped. She had to do it in a place like a mountain where there aren’t any people. But she can't walk well, she walked three hours to see me alone... She could not discuss anything political because of the possible wiretapping on the phone, I just kept saying 'Mom, Mom', and my mom just says 'Eun-hee, don't worry about mom,’ ‘I miss you,’ ‘Please eat well and stay healthy,’ that’s all there was.” - Kim Eun-Hee
Although Kim’s grief at not being able to help her mother overwhelmed her, the only thing Kim’s mother cared about was Kim’s well-being.
After a few months, she received another hand-written letter from her mother.
The news that her mother is still alive after 20 years of separation, the fact that she could see her mother through a picture, and can work to help her in the North gave Kim joy rather than sadness.
Although Kim lives alone in South Korea and is struggling economically herself, she hopes to send whatever she can to support her mother in the North.
“I sent my mom some money, and I look at my wallet, there is only 4,000 won (about $3.5) left. But knowing that my mom will be able to eat rice with some meat, perhaps with some doenjang guk (soybean paste soup), makes me feel relieved more than anything. I told her not to hesitate buying whatever clothes or food she needs, and spend it however she feels necessary. She said she would. The broker who delivered the money to my mom told me that my mom cried a lot.” - Kim Eun-Hee (pseudonym)
After receiving the money, Kim’s mother tries to convey her appreciation.
“The endless ordeal for my mom … for me seemed like hope”
Unfortunately, the ordeal for Kim’s mother in the North was continuing.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea closed its border with China, and its economy started declining dramatically At the same time, the regime started imposing a harsh crackdown on families who communicate with relatives who defected from North Korea, and this made it nearly impossible for Kim to connect with her mother for a while.
In August 2020, Kim received a sudden call from the broker who used to link Kim and her mother, telling her that her mother’s house had been destroyed by heavy rains that flooded many regions in North Korea that month.
According to the broker, the house was swamped by mud and sand from the landslide, and her mother was living inside the damaged house.
The broker passed the phone over to Kim’s mother, who was crying helplessly
Kim’s mother, who was not well enough to walk, could not expect any help from the North’s regime to deal with her shattered house.
After hanging up the phone with her mother, Kim hurried and wired 100,000 won (about $840) to her mother, unable to stop thinking about her mother’s crying.
Kim says supporting her mother’s life in the North is giving her life new hope and purpose.
“I cannot give up. I have got to stand up and start hustling for money, so that I can help my mom and my brothers. I take it as my main purpose in life in a way. For me, reconnecting with my mother gave me a kind of hope to continue living. I have to live so that my mom and my younger brothers can survive.”
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Editing and production
Paul Eckert, Dukin Han, H. Leo Kim,
Kyu S Lee, Min Mitchell, Jungmin Noh,
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Photos: Yonhap News
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