“I always wanted to perform on stage.” Interview with Jang Yeong-jin

1. Where were you born?

I was born in Gyeongsong County, North Hamgyeong Province, but grew up in Chongjin.

2. When were you born?

October 1959.

3. When did you arrive in South Korea?

In April 1997, by crossing the eastern part of the demarcation line.

4. What was your childhood like?

I went through 9 years of mandatory education and then I went to university.

I joined the army right after the Axe Murder Incident on August 18th, 1976. I served as a radio operator in Kaesong.

5. Did you have any hobbies/pastimes/etc?

I always wanted to perform on stage. I was shy and introverted but had a good singing voice. I was also good at delivering speeches. I majored in mathematics and physics in university.

6. What was your adult life like?

Life was hard since the distribution system collapsed in the early 80s. It was tough.

7. Did you have a job in North Korea? If so, what did you do?

After retiring from the military, I was in charge of radio communications at Cheongjin port.

<‘A Mark of Red Honor’, p. 238-239> “I, my health recovered, wanted to board a merchant ship. … To board a merchant ship, one had to enter the School of Merchant Seamen that educates sailors. The School of Merchant Seamen is for 2 years and located in Chongjin. The vice principal of the School told me that I only need a recommendation since they were in need of a radio operator… ”

8. Did you enjoy army life?

I joined the army when I was 19 year old. I received a lot of attention during my 10-year military service. It was not too hard.

9. When did you decide that you wanted to leave North Korea and why did you want to leave?

When did you escape?

I read that it was impossible to escape through China so you crossed the DMZ. Wasn’t this more difficult/dangerous? Were there other routes in China you could have sought?

My wife was a math teacher in high school but our marriage was uncomfortable and boring for me from the start.

I decided to leave at the age of 35.

The Tumen river border was about 8km away from my house. So I first entered China and sought help from the Korean Embassy in Beijing. They refused as there were defectors who tried this before me. I then contacted the South Korean consulate in Shanghai but the result was the same. I even considered taking the route through Southeast Asia but, due to lack of means, had to return to North Korea.

From April 1st to the 7th, 1997, I made my way to the DMZ and then crossed. I arrived at a South Korean observation post at 3 a.m.

I became the 1,013 person to defect from North Korea (Number 1,012 was Hwang Jang-yop).

There are 10 defectors who came through the DMZ; 3 of them were civilians, 7 were soldiers. As far as I know, I am the only person to have crossed the eastern sector.

<‘A Mark of Red Honor’, p.263-268>

– I filed an application for divorce at the People’s Court of North Hamgyong Province. But it was rejected. That we had no children did not constitute sufficient grounds for divorce.

– “I don’t want to live like this anymore. I accomplished nothing in this land. I have no dreams or hope. This land is one huge prison without bars. Perhaps things would be okay after I defect. If I leave, Mira would automatically become a divorcée … Mira deserves a happier life. Mira ought to be happy.”

– “It was 9 years, the time that we were together. How many tears have been shed because of me!”

10. How do you feel about your life in South Korea now?

My life is rough here. It is hard to get a job. I earned money as a cleaner. I recently left the job to fully focus on writing novels. Such kinds of work don’t allow much free time to read let alone write.

11. What is your one overriding memory of your life in North Korea?

I could not enjoy an ordinary, regular life. I have nothing to like or dislike about this life. I accept it as it is. It was a weird and extraordinary life. But I still want to be happy. Currently, I am old. I have neither strength nor dreams.


Image: Fabian Kretschmer, 2015

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