By Justine Josue
Diana had no idea where the bus would take her, but she knew she could never go home again.
For her, that home was North Korea. She is part of the growing number of young people who risk their lives to escape this impoverished hermit kingdom.
“Before, I was held back by intimidation and fear,” said Diana, who declined to give her real Korean name, fearing persecution of her family remaining in North Korea. “I feared becoming a traitor.” She spent the first twenty years of her life in a secluded world in which your degree of loyalty determined whether or not you were fed well. Her mother managed to escape that world while Diana was still in high school, and then she pressed her daughter to follow.
Despite this, Diana’s fears of betraying her country shackled her for another three years. But when she reached university, her outlook changed.
“Education from a North Korean university is useless,” said Diana, “The degree would have held no meaning.”
Her mother arranged for a broker to assist in the escape. Still, Diana could feel her father’s protective opposition to just the thought of her escaping, so she simply didn’t tell him.
Without a word to her remaining family, her father and brother, she left.
This was, unintentionally, the most strategic move she could have made. Shortly after, when her father was taken in for investigation, he truly knew nothing. He could not put her in danger, or at least, any more danger than she was already in.
Meanwhile, miles away, Diana crossed the border by swimming the Tumen River, which separates North Korea from China.
“The swim did not feel very dangerous,” said Diana. She said she was more haunted by, “the constant possibility of being found.” This possibility haunted Diana throughout her entire travel.
While in China, the broker got her on a bus. The doors closed as he remained on the other side of them. He would no longer be travelling with her. In that moment, she was in a country where she could not speak the language; nor did she have any idea where she was going.
Then, the bus stopped.
She watched as police boarded to check passengers’ ID’s. As they checked hers, she hoped for her life she wouldn’t be required to speak. Her North Korean accent would give her away instantly.
All was fine and she was on her way again.
Diana recalls that, in these moments, it felt like her whole world had changed. She saw life outside of North Korea. She saw people other than North Koreans.
Once she got to a telephone in China, she called her mother and told her, “I do not know where I am. I do not know who I am anymore.”
She traveled through Myanmar to a South Korean Embassy in Thailand, where she stayed for only a few more nights. She soon reunited with her mother in South Korea after a total of more than six months of travelling.
A year has passed since Diana left North Korea and she is living with her mother. Diana and says she and her mother are much closer now. She is still able to communicate with her father and brother by phone, and during her last call, she urged them to come to South Korea.
With her head down and her voice softer, she admitted she failed to persuade them.
“When I see news of North Korea, I think of my father and my brother, and I am filled with sadness,” said Diana.
The first time she had access to full internet, she googled Kim Jong Un. She watched as the screen overflowed with negative articles. Prior to this moment, Diana had no comprehension as to why the world seemed to hate him.
Diana is currently attending Nehemiah Korea Daum School, an evangelical missionary school focused on helping North Koreans refugees who are pursuing a college education in South Korea. She hopes to one day pursue computer science at Stony Brook University.