Last Monday was the first episode of the new year for Abnormal Summit. I have to admit that my interest in the show has been waning but I was really interested in hearing the story of a young refugee from North Korea. It’s a country that seems so close in distance but so far in understanding and I was interesting in hearing his story.
Kang Choon Hyuk is an artist and rapper who escaped from North Korea with his parents at a young age. It appears that the term they use for North Korean defectors is now “새터민 (Seh-Tuh-Min)” to mean that they are a resident who has settled at a new location. This puts a more positive spin on the old term which was “탈북자 (Tal-Buk-Ja)” which roughly means escapee from the North. His life certainly sounds like a movie as he described his tale. His father was the one who first went over to China in order to find some work but on a trip back home, he was captured and sent to jail. At first Kang Choon Hyuk didn’t understand why his father broke the law because he had been taught in school to never escape and trust in the government.
After some time, their family decided again to escape to China. As they crossed the Tumen River in early March, the river was frozen in some parts and not so frozen in other parts. Kang Choon Hyuk almost drown in a section of the river that wasn’t so frozen and was only saved by the other adults that were in their group.
When they arrived in China, they were walking along the highway and considering the fact that they were walking in such a remote area and the way they were dressed, it must have attracted the attention of the authorities. A van pulls up beside the group and Kang Choon Hyuk’s father tells them to walk along calmly. Then on the count of 3, they are to run as fast as they can up the mountain they were walking beside. From that point on, the group decided that they would only travel by night.
Although they were living illegally in China, they were able to find work. However, they kept attracting the attention of authorities. One night they showed up at the door, their cousin had escaped through a window and tried to get Kang Choon Hyuk to escape with him. Unfortunately, Kang Choon Hyuk saw that his parents were caught and he was unable to leave them behind. His parents later scolded him for not trying to escape and they were sent off to jail. However, a few days later, the family was unexpectedly let go. It appears that the cousin had tried to get help from the people in the village. I assume that money must have exchanged hands in order for the authorities to let them go.
It was most likely this event that made them think they couldn’t live in China anymore. So Kang Choon Hyuk and his cousin decided that they would try and escape and make it to South Korea. They had heard that even if they went to the South Korean embassy in China, there would be a 0% chance that they’d make it to South Korea but there would be more of chance if they went to one of the Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam. They took the train all the way down to Kunming and then walked to Vietnam during the night or during bad weather as they would have a better chance at not getting caught. He and his cousin finally make their way to Cambodia but again they get caught by a van pulling along aside them. Thinking that they’ve been caught by North Korean agents, they believe in the worst but after reaching a big compound, they realize that they are surrounded by other defectors who are similarly trying to make the same escape. Kang Choon Hyuk and his cousin are finally able to come to South Korea and he seeks the help of other individuals in order to help his parents reach South Korea as well.
I think what’s surprising is how other countries view North Korea. Germany believe that you can do anything in North Korea as long as you have money. In the past, Erich Honecker in East Germany had a good relationship with Kim Il Sung and that is why many of the trams and other industrial goods in North Korea are German made. China’s relationship with North Korea is 50/50 as some believe that North Korea gives China a bad image on the international stage while others believe that because they are military allies, they should stand by North Korea. Obviously, the US has a negative stance in regards to North Korea because of the nuclear weapon and the violation of human rights issues. Finally, Egypt has a good relationship with North Korea as Hosni Mubarak is a military guy and they have provided support to each other in the past.
I found it amusing that when Sung Shi Kyung asks if anyone has traveled to North Korea, the only person who raised their hand was Nikolai. It not only seems like he has traveled the world but the G12 members joked how it would seem like he would be the first one to travel to outer space. Kang Choon Hyuk relays that his hometown is Ohn Seong which is literally at the most northern tip of North Korea. However, he’s never been to Pyeongyang. In order to go on vacation, you not only need permission from your boss but also by the state and because it’s so complicated, many North Koreans aren’t able to see other parts of the country. As for Nikolai, it appears that he’s seen more of North Korea than Kang Choon Hyuk has.
Nikolai shares his pictures from the trip and there are the typical shots of Pyeongyang which includes their subway line. There is a rail line connecting Beijing to Pyeongyang.
It was surprising to learn that they no longer confiscate your cell phones upon arrival in North Korea. Rather, you’re not allowed to take certain type of pictures such as pictures of the military officers. Also, nowadays, many visitors are able to Instagram and Facebook from North Korea, which is actually mind-blowing for me.
During his trip, Nikolai enjoyed the North Korean beer called Daedongkang and their soju. One interesting meal he had was grilled clams. The clams were grilled using the gasoline from the tour bus. They set the clams on fire and after you eat the meat inside, you’re supposed to use the shell to take a shot of soju in order to disinfect the clams and help tone down the taste of gasoline.
Nikolai also took the opportunity to try one of the North Korean hairstyles. North Korea is obviously conservative with how they look and dress. By dressing out of line, it may mean that you’re being influenced by a foreign mentality.
The group also discussed North Korean slang and humor. Kang Choon Hyuk relates how most of their humor extends from making fun of the South saying how hungry and starving South Korean people are. He may have found the joke funny while he was living there but not so much now. As for slang, North Korea doesn’t have many slang words but rather it’s reflected in how those words are said. Such as, your words are on a downward slope or your words smell burnt, meaning to reflect that you’re being disrespectful or that it sounds fishy.
The one slang phrase Nikolai remembers is that people would often ask if you had a “pants” or if you had a “skirt” meaning to reflect whether you had a boyfriend (pants) or a girlfriend (skirt). When it comes to dating, most men don’t really have the opportunity to date because they are sent off to the army in their late teens. Since they have to serve in the army for about 10 years, people don’t get married until they are 30 years old.
Kang Choon Hyuk relates that when you come across someone who is ugly, they are referred to as a “무산 뚝감자 (Moo-San Ddook-Gam-Ja)”. It’s an unusually shaped root vegetable or potato that’s not eaten by people but rather by pigs. I have to concur with Jeon Hyun Moo that I would be highly offended if I heard that, too.
Because Kang Choon Hyuk is an artist, his artwork reflects what he knows and it’s interesting that he often draws the ironic representation of North Korean life. For example, there are posters in school about not being influenced by Western ideals and yet the kids are looking at an IPhone. On the birthdays of the respective North Korean leaders, it is treated as a national holiday and the kids often get gifts. However, you cannot open the gifts without thanking them. It’s something that you’d just want to get through it quickly and with each gift you sound a bit more annoyed.
North Korea is a country that we’ll never fully understand but I’m fascinated by each new story that we hear. I hope that we get to continue to hear stories from North Korean defectors because as much as the dictator threatens the international community, there are innocent victims who live in that country.