Eunhyang Kim climbed silently through a mountain pass that flanks China’s southernmost border with Laos, fearing for her life and scared she would be stopped by Laotian or Chinese authorities at any moment.
“As I was crossing the mountain, I became very nervous, anxious and fearful because there were two elderly women, an 11 year old and an infant,” said Kim, through a translator.
The small group moved as quickly as the old women would allow, cradling the baby gently, their thoughts racing with the possibility of being spotted.
“If the infant cried in the middle of the night while we were crossing, there was a chance of getting exposed and arrested,” Kim said.
As an escapee from the North Korean government and current Boise State student, 18 year old Kim had already managed to illegally cross the northern border into China and travel through a vast swath of south eastern Asia in cars and small vans, heading toward Thailand and a chance at political asylum.
Because Thailand does not have strong political ties with North Korea, refugees caught sneaking across their borders are not returned forcibly.
Kim’s journey to freedom isn’t unique. According to the North Korean Refugee Foundation, 1,509 individuals defected from North Korea in 2012 and trekked southwest through escape routes in China to avoid starvation, political imprisonment, and religious persecution; issues all too common in the military controlled peninsula nation.
One thing does identify Kim from other North Koreans refugees, her opportunity to study the English language halfway around the world at Boise State in the campus Intensive English Program.
The Intensive English Program offers five sessions of English language instruction per year to international students like Kim striving to learn the language.
Steve Merrill, former U.S. naval attache to South Korean embassy, made Kim’s journey to Boise State possible through a proposal based on an existing program to teach North Korean refugees English.
“The embassy goes down once a month and teaches English to North Korean students,” Merrill said. “But it’s not long lasting or high impact. When I got out of the navy and returned to Boise, I got in contact with Ben (Chon) to make something more significant happen.”
Before Kim even imagined setting foot on Idaho soil, she was shuttled over five thousand miles and through five countries at the mercy of total strangers. These strangers or brokers, as Kim called them, were funded by Kim’s mother who had already escaped the North and made the journey to the South where she had found work and citizenship.
“A North Korean broker came to me, saying ‘Your mom wants you to escape to the South,’ so I followed the broker,” Kim said.
At border crossings and checkpoints, these brokers bribed guards and led Kim and her group through five countries, getting them closer to their goal of reaching Thailand where they would be given asylum and allowed transportation to South Korea.
In China and Laos however, getting arrested as an illegal immigrant means being sent back to North Korea to face execution or hard labor.
“You get prison time in a forced labor camp,” Kim said.
According to Kim, North Korean authorities strictly crack down on those caught planning a border crossing over the Yalu River, the physical border that separates the small country from its massive northern neighbor.
Those caught planning escape with the intent to travel to South Korea however, are given harsher punishments.
“Many, many North Koreans cross the border into China to make money and come back,” Kim said. “Few make it all the way to the South and if they do, they are like a political criminal.”
Kim explained that after crossing the border from Laos into Thailand, she and her group didn’t worry about being sentenced to a labor camp should they be discovered.
“In Thailand, there is no such danger,” Kim said. “You can just wander around the land, and if you get caught and arrested by the police, then you are sent to their jail because you are illegal immigrants. You stay there for a while, and then you are sent to a refugee camp.”
After crossing into Thailand, one of Kim’s group members contacted South Korean officials via cell phone and were advised to turn themselves in to the proper authorities.
Kim and her group made contact with Thai police and were promptly arrested and spent a small amount of time in jail while their country of origin was confirmed. From there, they were able to leave jail and move on to a refugee camp.
Thai authorities investigated Kim’s history and country of origin. She was approved and given an official refugee status. From there, she flew to South Korea, was given citizenship and educational opportunities.
Looking back at her life in North Korea, Kim expressed sadness about the quality of life offered to her former nations youth.
“I feel sorry for North Korea’s young people because they don’t have an educational system and opportunity to learn,” Kim said. “They don’t even have the opportunity to learn from books, television or the internet.”
Barely receiving an elementary education, Kim dreamed of becoming educated and bettering herself.
“When I was in North Korea, I didn’t have the resources to study well,” Kim said. “I didn’t finish elementary school and I wanted a proper, systematic education.”
After arriving in South Korea Kim chose to attend school in South Korea designed specifically for refugees like her who received little to no education while growing up in the north. Kim’s school combined middle school and high school grades to help kids catch up on missed studies.
“It was started by the (South) Korean government to help the North Korean refugee children,” said Kim’s translator Ben Chon. “They are way behind in education.”
Those who belong to the 1 percent of state party members have the luxury of schooling while the rest of the country’s citizens are preoccupied with finding enough food to eat.
“You have to belong to a certain group, the Communist party,” Chon said.
Membership in the Workers’ Party of Korea, the de facto ruling regime, requires proof that family members served against Japanese forces in the second world war, or that parents or relatives have previously been loyal supporters of the state.
“You don’t become a member of the Communist party by wanting to be, you have to have that background,” Chon said.
Kim looks forward to living in the United States and experiencing the cultures and peoples who inhabit its variety of landscapes.
“It’s just huge, way bigger than I ever imagined,” Kim said.