Senior’s grandmother recounts escape from North Korea

September 11, 2017 — by Chelsea Leung

Editor’s note: All quotes from Yi Jin Ha have been translated from Korean by Jarod Kim. All names except Jarod, Jerame and S. Kim are pseudonyms to protect the sources' identities.

North Korean native Yi Jin Ha remembers the worst moment of her difficult childhood: watching her youngest brother die during the hardships her family faced during and after the Korean War.

“His eyelashes and fingernails fell out,” she said. “His empty stomach became round and extended, opposite of what you would expect from a starving child.”

Yi, senior Jarod Kim’s maternal grandmother, hails from Cheorwon, a town now absorbed into the 38th parallel that splits North Korea from South Korea. She escaped North Korea soon after the Korean Demilitarized Zone was created in 1953.  

Yi  now lives in Atlanta with one of her sons, but her family says her heart remains in a town that doesn’t exist anymore in a place she cannot return to.

She has a life marked by hardships. Her father, a leading civil engineer for the then-united Korea, had designed bridges, roads and railroads during Japan’s WWII occupation of Korea. But even her father’s high position could not prevent her family from suffering from malnourishment during the conflict. When she was 7, she awoke in the arms of a Russian nurse after fainting.

The role of her father led to both their survival and downfall. According to Jerame Kim, Jarod’s older brother and a 2016 graduate, Yi’s father believed that modernization would benefit the Korean people, even though the public was skeptical of his working with the Japanese.

He refused an order to accept an engineering position for the communist North Korean government, which he saw as oppressive toward the Korean people. Feigning tuberculosis using a friend’s x-ray, he left North Korea when Yi was 10 years old. He told his remaining family, Yi’s mother, Yi and Yi’s four siblings, to meet him at a South Korean railroad he designed if they also managed to escape in the future.

After seeing military practice drills and Americans evacuating North Koreans onto boats, Yi’s family left for South Korea, but her father never made it to the railroad station. To this day, his fate is unknown, although other North Korean refugees claimed that they saw him standing before a firing squad.

Alone in South Korea with no money, food or a place to live, Jarod and Jerame’s great-grandmother, Kim Eun Chae, decided to place Yi, then 11 and the oldest of four, and her two younger brothers into an orphanage. The younger sister stayed with Yi’s mother.

This plan did not last long. Suffering from starvation,  the youngest boy in the family died in front of Yi’s eyes on the street before the orphanage. He was given no funeral.

Yi did not cry while witnessing this horror, nor when her mother left. She recalled lacking emotions throughout all her ordeals.

“My teachers at the orphanage called me Beethoven because I was stoic,” Yi said. “I did not know how to smile or laugh like other children. I did not know how to cry, either.”

Just once, the orphanage received care packages from the U.S. containing personal care items like combs, toothbrushes, soaps, handkerchiefs and letters of hope from American children. When it was her turn to pick an item, she chose the toothbrush.

Eventually, Yi’s mother was remarried to a South Korean widower and real estate agent. By then, however, it was time for then 17-year-old Yi to make her own way in the world.

She began working long hours as a seamstress with four other refugee girls. They lived in a small, claustrophobic room in Seoul. “Sleeping like sardines,” they had to huddle even closer when Yi’s remaining brother joined them after leaving the orphanage.

Yi remembered how one night, she awoke with an itch burning her leg. Desiring relief, she scratched and scratched.

“When I awoke, the girl next to me was wondering why her leg was scratched up and bloodied,” she said. “We were so tired.”

Later, Yi and her best friend, also a refugee, opened up their own tailoring shop, where Yi worked as the pattern maker while her best friend designed the clothes. Through her business, Yi helped other North Korean refugees. She hired them as seamstresses, and during this process, she also met and later married Jarod and Jerame’s grandfather, B. Yi.

In 1978, she started a new life by immigrating to the U.S., moving from Baltimore to Los Angeles and then finally to Atlanta in 2008. All the while, her old memories and nightmares remained with her.

When Jarod and Jerame’s mother and Yi’s daughter, S. Kim, was a child, she heard her mother screaming in the middle of the night multiple times a month. This occurred regularly into Yi’s late 60s.

“My father would say, ‘You’re safe. Wake up. Wake up. You are safe,’” S. Kim said. “We never asked her about it because the screams were so desperate and heartbreaking. We cannot bring it up.”

Although she lived in changing post-war times and not the totalitarian personality cult dominated by Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un for the past 60 years, Yi still despises North Korea’s government.

“North Korea’s regime is synonymous to suffering,” Yi said. “Not just one generation. It’s everyone living under the regime.”


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