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From Teen NK Defector to Honors Student

Posted April. 09, 2010 06:10,   


In November 2005, 12-year-old Ri Il-shim was shivering while crossing the frozen Duman River dividing China and North Korea. The bitter cold only partially explained why she was trembling. She was making her third attempt to escape from North Korea. Trembling with fear, she said, “I won’t get another chance if I fail again.” After crossing the river with her two brothers, she hid and waited for the sun to rise.

Ri, now 15, was born in Musan County in North Hamkyong Province. When she turned 8 in 2001, her mother disappeared and her father forced her to quit school and took her to a remote mountain village to do farm work. When autumn came, her father crossed the Duman River with his three children. A week later, they were caught and sent back to North Korea. The family spent 80 days in prison.

Her father disappeared a year later, and Ri and her brothers were put in solitary confinement. Unidentified people came to their cells and beat them until they bled, but Ri and her siblings said nothing about their father. A year later, they were told that their father was in South Korea.

In October 2004, they crossed the Duman River for the second time. A man fluent in Korean approached them and said, “I’ll help you get to South Korea if 100 North Korean defectors gather.” She and her brothers stayed in a strange room for several days. North Korean defectors also began gathering in the room and their number almost reached 100. The man, however, took the money he received from the defectors and ran away with a young North Korean woman. Worse, he reported them to Chinese police. This occurred 13 days after Ri crossed the border. When she was sent to North Korea, someone said, “I heard you guys crossed the river twice. Right? Then everything will be over.” Ri thought she would be executed shortly after being returned to the North. Despite enduring more beatings, she was determined to escape again.

Eventually, she and her brothers made their third attempt. They bribed North Korean border guards with money sent by their father and crossed the river. The three siblings and eight other North Koreans reached the border between China and Mongolia after spending several days in a car. They had to walk to the nearest city without help after getting out of the car. They kept walking and walking in the middle of the vast desert. One person said, “I’ve heard that someone died while walking through the desert in winter.” After seemingly having walked endlessly and crying, Ri reached the end of the desert and arrived in a Mongolian city.

After arriving in South Korea, Ri was first sent to an asylum for young North Korean defectors. She was eventually placed in fourth grade at an elementary school. Since Ri had had no chance to study in North Korea, she could only read and solve simple math problems at the time. She stayed up all night trying to memorize everything she learned at school. Because she never forgot the hardship she endured, she quickly improved her grades and emerged as one of the school’s top students. She even received several awards at writing competitions.

Last year, she was accepted to Daewon International Middle School. Sometimes, she was discouraged since her school performance was far weaker than her classmates. “But I’ve never had regrets. Now I can study as much as I want,” she said.

Daewon helped Ri to get supplementary lessons by asking three students from Daewon Foreign Language High School to tutor her after school. The most difficult subjects for Ri were math and history.

Seo Na-hyeon, who tutors Ri in world history, said, “For Il-shim, Greek civilization is a totally different world. When I watch her try to learn more about history, I think she’s a really great girl.” Ri’s homeroom teacher Han Yang-uk said, “She was very passive in seventh grade. This year, however, she volunteered to run for class representative and became a vice chairwoman.”

Ri said she has many dreams. She wants to become a prosecutor, but sometimes hopes to become a writer. She also wants to tell North Koreans of her adaptation to a new life in South Korea when the two Koreas are reunified.

She runs whenever she thinks of her sick father and remembers the pain she suffered in North Korea.

“My hobby is running. I’m refreshed when I run,” she said. Though she cried throughout The Dong-A Ilbo interview, she finally smiled when talking about running.