I wasn’t born to high-ranking officials or rich people. I am an ordinary person, whose mother belongs to the working class, just like almost everyone else. There really is no difference between me and the next man, except that my mother’s devotion to her only son is extraordinary.
However, for my readers to get a glimpse of North Korean life, I want to write a little bit about my childhood days.
I was in the 4th grade of elementary school when my mother came to look for me during class time. It was a surprise visit, and I wondered what was going on. I was happy enough that my teacher told me to go with her though, because I was bored with studying anyway. But, oddly, as soon as we got out of the school, mother suddenly turned to hug me and I saw her eyes fill with tears.
“Jun Ha, when we arrive at grandmother’s house you will see your father.”
I could hardly believe my ears. But she had definitely said “father.”
“I have a father?”
“Jun Ha, you must address him as father!”
A strange feeling swelled up deep in my heart. When we arrived at grandmother’s house, I saw my uncle, aunt and cousins, who lived in Sinuiju, there. I gave my uncle a hug.
“Jun Ha, he is your father.”
I looked over at a man in a black leather jacket and glasses. He was looking at me.
“Go and hug him.”
That man’s arms were wide open towards me, but that just made me embrace my uncle more. I saw tears streaming down his face.
“What have I done while my child has been growing up like that?” Father was distraught.
Years before, my mother, who had always drawn attention from men for her beauty, had fallen for my father, who also happened to be good-looking and witty. Although she was old and wrinkled by this time, I still felt astonished whenever I looked at her old photos. Mother had had to elope with father because grandfather and grandmother opposed their marriage. She left home and began living with father. Father was attracted to mother at first, but when she ran away from home he had no choice but to live with her whether he liked it or not. Mother was 28 years old back then.
Father was born in Hamheung, North Hamgyung. Because of Three Revolutionary Teams mobilization, he was transferred to my hometown and that is when he started to get intimate with mother. But he was already engaged to another woman back in Hamheung. A few months after they started living with each other father began drinking. He often beat up mother after drinking. Only a year after he started living with mother, he left her. Mother, even though she was pregnant that time, let father go without any hesitation as she was sick and tired of his violence and drinking problems. Grandfather and all her neighbors tried to persuade her to abort me and marry another man. But mother was so traumatized by the experience that she started to avoid men intentionally. Because of grandfather, who warned her that if she didn’t abort me he would break off relations, she rented a room in her friend’s house and gave birth to me. Since then, she raised me all by herself. Ever since I was young, mother never gave me a clear answer to my questions about father. I just assumed that he was dead already because she always told me that she would tell me when I got bigger.
So it was perfectly understandable that I didn’t know what to do with father standing in front of me, crying. The word ‘father’ just wouldn’t come out of my mouth. He approached and hugged me. Then he immediately began sobbing like a baby. He continued to say sorry to me. Watching a grown-up man crying like that, I felt like crying too. Only then did I bring myself to call him ‘father’ and give him a hug.
Father gave me a piggy back to a department store. He bought me new clothes, shoes and candies. He seemed to be a rich man. I had a good time with him for a while. But, without so much as a word, he was gone again. I only knew it later, but father gave mother 15,000 won and another 4,000 for rituals related to my deceased grandfather. At that time mother owed a neighbor 15,000 won. The man often threatened that he would make me serve as a farmhand until she paid him back. So mother paid him back with the money father gave her.
But because of the money he gave her, she had to suffer a huge insult. About a month after father’s visit, father’s wife came to our house with 4 sturdy men beside her. The woman and the 4 men cursed at mother and demanded that she give them the money from father back. I realized what was going on, and threw myself at the 4 men with a burning skewer from the kitchen. “Son of a bitch! What do you think you are doing to my mother!” I yelled. But I was just a 12 year old boy, and no match for those grown men. They kicked me so hard I fell down. Mother took me in her arms and fought them back. “What are you doing to my little boy?!!” Only when I yelled “I will beat their heads with a rake,” father’s legal wife stopped them. They happened to be the woman’s little brothers.
“I do feel sympathy toward you, since I’m a woman too. So, I won’t take all the 20,000 won from you. Instead, I’ll just take that television.”
I had been going to my neighbor’s house to watch television, since we didn’t have one at home. Mother, even though she already owed that neighbor money, had felt sorry for me and bought that television. Back then, almost no one had a television in my hometown. When it was time for movies, everyone went to a neighbor’s house. Kids of my age didn’t wash their feet before they entered the house, so television owners were quite irritated with kids. When we asked the television owner what movie was showing, he would tell us to “go wash your feet first!!!”
The only good thing we had in our home was that television, so it meant more than just a television. It was mother’s last resort to maintain her pride. I didn’t want her to feel servile because of that television.
“Take that television and never come back!”
I yelled at the woman. Father, whom I met just once in my entire life, left us with an unforgettable pain. I never met my father again. Mother and I were not able to buy a television again either, because we were busy trying to make a living.
I was raised by a single parent, and I came to my senses a lot later than my friends. I was fully determined to stay firm and not be held in contempt by others. Whenever I got involved in a fight, I never held back. When someone hit me once, I was never satisfied until I returned it 3 or 4-fold. Even in fights where my friends’ older brothers were involved, I fought back until the end. Thanks to this wretched son of hers, mother had to worry about me all the time. She often scolded me not to fight anymore, but when my friends’ parents were scolding me she would be even fiercer. The only person I was afraid of was my mother.
Looking back on my life, I really was such a troublemaker. The time when I broke the window of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il Revolutionary History Investigation Laboratory with a slingshot, the time when I got beat up by a boyscout guidance teacher and threw stones at his house with my friends, the time I tried to take a look at a female teacher’s underwear with a mirror and got beat up, the time I jumped from the 2nd floor of a building to show off to girls and hurt myself... Such behavior must have pressured mother really bad. Even though I am living in a foreign land alone, thinking of my childhood days really makes me laugh. But my mother must have worried so much.
The very day I am writing this is mother’s birthday. If I were home, I would be drinking and chatting with her happily, but all I am doing right now is watching the moon in a shabby house in China. I must have shed all the tears there are to shed, but I still cannot stop crying.
Defector Lee Jun Ha! When will you be able to meet your mother? When can you go back home? Everything is so unclear. It seems that life is exempt from all the happiness a human being can enjoy.
Where were we, anyway?