A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea

A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Wednesday, April 14


Eunsun Kim was born in North Korea, one of the most secretive and oppressive countries in the modern world. As a child Eunsun loved her country…despite her school field trips to public executions, daily self-criticism sessions, and the increasing gnaw of hunger as the country-wide famine escalated.

By the time she was eleven years old, Eunsun's father and grandparents had died of starvation, and Eunsun too was in danger of starving. Finally, her mother decided to escape North Korea with Eunsun and her sister, not knowing that they were embarking on a journey that would take them nine long years to complete. Before finally reaching South Korea and freedom, Eunsun and her family would live homeless, fall into the hands of Chinese human traffickers, survive a North Korean labor camp, and cross the deserts of Mongolia on foot.

Now, in A Thousand Miles to Freedom, Eunsun is sharing her remarkable story to give voice to the tens of millions of North Koreans still suffering in silence. Told with grace and courage, her memoir is a riveting exposé of North Korea's totalitarian regime and, ultimately, a testament to the strength and resilience of the human spirit.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250092847
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/28/2016
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 292,508
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

EUNSUN KIM grew up in North Korea. At age 11, she fled the country and began the harrowing 9-year journey that led her to freedom. Today, Eunsun works at an NGO promoting human rights in North Korea. She lives in South Korea.

SEBASTIEN FALLETTI has been the Korea correspondent for the French newspaper Le Figaro since 2009. He covers political and business news across Asia. Born in Paris, Sébastien is now based in Seoul and Shanghai.

Read an Excerpt

A Thousand Miles to Freedom

My Escape From North Korea

By Eunsun Kim, Sébastien Falletti, David Tian

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Éditions Michel Lafon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7088-8


December 1997

For nearly a week, I had been alone in our tiny, freezing apartment in Eundeok, the town in North Korea where I was born. Other than a coffee table and a wooden dresser, my parents had sold all of our furniture to buy food to fill our stomachs. Even the carpeting was gone, so I slept on the cement floor in a makeshift sleeping bag pulled together from old clothes. The walls were completely bare except for two framed, side-by-side portraits of our "Eternal President" Kim Il-sung and his successor, the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il, staring down at me. Selling these portraits would have been considered sacrilege, punishable by death.

Even though darkness was starting to fall on this late December afternoon, I could still just manage to read what I was writing. Once the sun went down, I would have no more light — electricity no longer worked in the apartment, and besides, the lightbulbs had been gone for quite some time already. There was no more heating, either, but I hardly felt the cold at all, because I was completely exhausted after several days without eating. I was sure that I was about to die of hunger.

And so I started to write my last will and testament.

I was eleven years old.

Earlier that Day

For the third time in the past week, I decided to go out in search of my mother and Keumsun, my older sister. They had left our apartment six days ago for Rajin-Sonbong, a large city nearby, to try to find food, since there was nothing left to eat in Eundeok. Mustering up all the courage I had within me, I crossed the bridge over the river and took the main road up to the train station. There were not many people walking along the sidewalks, but even so I made sure to get a good look at everyone who passed by, just in case my mother was coming back from the other direction. On my left, I glimpsed the noodle shop where I used to love eating, where my dad had taken me on special occasions. A little farther up the road, I caught sight of the photo studio where my family had once had a family portrait taken. When I finally reached the bus station, I was given permission to ride for free in the back of a crowded shuttle bus on the way to Rajin-Sonbong, a trip that takes about an hour. I was probably allowed on for free because I was still a child.

Throughout the entire trip, in my desperation to find my mother, I nervously scrutinized every car and every truck we passed along the way. My efforts were in vain; at the terminal, I found myself alone amid a barrage of uniformed men. In front of me, an electric fence protected the entrance to Rajin-Sonbong. A special permit was required to enter the city. I must have waited at the gate for a good hour or so, hopefully and anxiously watching everyone who walked out, searching for my mother's face. Unfortunately, neither my mom nor Keumsun emerged from the crowd. At last, disheartened, I decided to return home, since nightfall was rapidly approaching.

I had made the same journey twice before, but after this trip, I was sure the two of them would never come back to me. Something must have happened to them. Or maybe, it occurred to me, they had decided to abandon me. With a heavy, bitter heart, I began to resent my mother. As she was leaving, she had told me she would bring back something to eat "in two or three days." She left me fifteen North Korean won to live on, which, at the time, seemed like quite a large fortune in my eyes. I was thrilled at first — I'd never had so much money before in my life. My eyes shone brightly with excitement. Like a real adult, I proudly went by myself to the jangmadang, the market next to the river. At the market, I bought a block of tofu, and then I returned to our little apartment on the second floor of our building. There, I ate the flabby tofu by the spoonful, rationing it so that it would last until my family returned. For two days, I stayed at home, watching people on the street through the window. Ever since my father had died a few weeks earlier, on November 11, my sister and I no longer attended school. We were too busy looking for the roots and timber in the mountains which we needed to eat or sell to survive. Besides, we would have been embarrassed to go back to school, since we no longer had any presentable clothes. We had sold everything we had and were wearing rags. When I went outside these days, I was always afraid of running into classmates.

* * *

After forty-eight hours had passed, hunger began to gnaw at my stomach, and my fear of being abandoned started to swell. When I finished eating the tofu, there was nothing else left in the apartment to eat. And my mom had still not returned home yet. I lay down and tried to sleep on the floor, closing my eyes and counting to ten in my head; surely, she would come back by the time I finished. But when I got to ten, nothing happened, so then I counted in reverse from ten to one. Still, nothing changed.

Soon, I started skipping meals. On the balcony, I found some dusty turnip leaves, left over from when we had spread them there to dry in the sun. I grabbed some of the least discolored leaves to boil and make into a soup. For two days, I survived on this tasteless concoction.

Another two days passed, during which time I didn't eat anything. Except for my third trip to Rajin-Sonbong, I no longer even had enough energy to go out and beg or steal. Little by little, my body started to get used to the stabbing hunger in my stomach, but I lost all of my strength. Overcome by my weakness, I tried to sleep. I felt like the ground was going to open up and swallow me, like I was going to get sucked into the depths of the earth.

Suddenly, I realized I was going to die soon. This was it. By the time my family came back, it would be too late. Ever since the start of the Arduous March — the great North Korean famine of the mid-1990s — I had known I wasn't going to make it through alive. I had become so used to the idea that I wasn't even afraid of dying anymore. Even so, I knew that I didn't want to leave the world like this, without a trace of myself left behind. At once, I decided to write my testament. I wanted to tell my mom all that I had gone through. I wanted to let her know that I had waited for her, that I had tried my best to find her. And, especially, I wanted her to know that I felt abandoned.

In the drawer of the coffee table, I fished out a small notebook and a pencil from among the few valuable items that we had not sold. The paper in the notebook was of good quality. Crouched under the twilight, I started to write my will. In the notebook, I recounted all my trials and tribulations, as well as my three voyages to and from Rajin-Sonbong. Clenching my pencil tightly, and full of despair, I filled out an entire page.

Mom,I wrote.I am waiting for you. I have been waiting for you for six days. I feel like I'm going to die soon. Why haven't you come back to me yet?

After finishing the page, I started crying and fell to the ground as the darkness of night gradually began to envelop me. Suddenly, I heard noise coming from the stairs. My heart started to skip.

Alas, it was just the neighbors, returning home to their apartment.

I left my will on the coffee table and, my face soaked in tears, I laid myself down and closed my eyes. I was sure that I was never going to wake up again.


March 2011

The automated doors slam shut. The train I'm taking rattles back and forth as it passes through the underground tunnels of Seoul's subway system. As I lean against the glass window, a medley of bright colors from advertisements starts to appear on the dark walls of the tunnel, with slogans that I can't seem to make out. Everything here in Seoul, South Korea, moves so quickly, including the metro.

My name is Eunsun Kim and today, as I write this, I am twenty-five years old.

If you were to look at me, you would probably assume I was just like any other college student. Because of my slight figure, you might not even realize that I am older than all of my friends. In about forty minutes, I will arrive at the entrance of Sogang University, one of the best universities in South Korea. My campus is not as impressive as those of the prestigious Korea University or Yonsei University, but regardless, I feel right at home there, with its familiar landmarks and the many friends I have made.

I have my day already planned out. Equipped with my black-and-orange Samsung laptop, I am planning to spend the day preparing for my exams in the library. With my iPhone in its purple case, I text my friends and arrange a quick meet-up at the Starbucks on campus. I like the caffe latte — the espresso is a bit bitter for my taste. After getting my coffee, I'll go back to the library, where I will try not to fall asleep while reading my textbooks. At Sogang University, I study Chinese language and culture, and later you will understand what led me to these subjects.

In South Korea, the competition to get the best grades is fierce, but still, I try my best. Few of my classmates are even aware that I did not have the opportunity to go to school for many years, and for the most part, I try to maintain a low profile to avoid drawing attention to the delay in my education. I enjoy learning and studying, especially at the beginning of each semester when the professors are fresh and enthusiastic. Later tonight, around ten o'clock, I'll return to our little apartment, situated right in the heart of Seoul, where I'll see my older sister, Keumsun, and my mother.

* * *

Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, is a true metropolis, with over fifteen million residents, a skyline covered with tall skyscrapers, and an extensive highway system. The mighty Han River flows through the middle of the city, but in winter, when the river is frozen, you can just walk directly across the river without using any of the bridges. Behind the river stand several steep mountains, and at the summit of one of them sits an immense tower built for television broadcasts. The Namsan Tower is the symbol of Seoul, the city that took me in, the city that I now call home. Here, traffic jams sometimes last for hours on end, even during heavy July rains, and the rent for apartments is sky-high. But life here is also so exhilarating, so convenient, and everything moves so fast. High-speed Internet is available everywhere. There is something interesting and fun to do on every street corner, both day and night.

I often meet up with my friends in Sinchon, a student neighborhood, to drink maekju, a local beer, in the bars that never seem to close. In the bars we also eat dried octopus and grilled jjukkumi, a "baby" species with five arms each — a real treat. They are small enough that you can swallow them in just one bite. My friends refuse to believe me when I tell them seafood is fresher and tastier in North Korea. But it's true! They don't always understand me, because I come from a different world entirely. And most people could never even begin to imagine this other world where I was born and raised.

* * *

The high-speed train vibrates below my feet. All around me, ajumas — the Korean term used to address married or middle-age women — watch their favorite shows on their cell phones with antennas sticking out. Some students, perched atop their high heels and holding on to the train's metal bars for balance, are listening to their iPods. Others, staring into their pocket mirrors, are applying mascara. They disdainfully ignore the street vendor trying to sell his Frank Sinatra CDs. Talking through speakers on wheels that he drags along behind him, the vendor tries to peddle his CD collection to the older gentlemen on the train. As the train travels from station to station, the platforms fill up and empty almost mechanically.

The silence of the South Korean metro allows me to ruminate for a moment. I begin reflecting on my memories of the train stations in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, that I visited with my dad such a long time ago. The stations were so magnificent and luxurious, with big beautiful purple chandeliers, like something you might expect to see in a major Hollywood film. The train stations in Seoul are much blander. I will remember the trip we made to Pyongyang for the rest of my life. I was nine years old, and we were by ourselves, Keumsun, my father, and me. Mom didn't come with us; she preferred to stay back home and take care of things at the apartment. Even though the famine was already taking hold and we had nothing to eat, the trip to Pyongyang felt magical. There weren't any skyscrapers in sight, but we saw a hotel under construction that reached a hundred and fifty meters in height. Workers and machines dangled from the top of the hotel. From such a distance, they appeared so tiny that they looked like little ants.

* * *

Only three stations now separate me from the Sogang University campus, and my heart starts beating faster and faster as the train accelerates. The speed of the train makes me feel a certain melancholy in my heart: it reminds me that I am from a completely different world. Where I'm from, it took two long days to get from Eundeok, the little town where we lived, to Chongjin, just ninety-five kilometers away, where my grandparents lived. The trip to Chongjin was always an exhausting one. We would pass through frigid temperatures, and we were always crammed together in the train like farm animals. We relieved ourselves of bodily waste using little tins we carried with us. If we moved, we would lose our spot to someone else. In South Korea, I can travel the same distance in under twenty minutes on a high-speed train. Back in North Korea, only the capital had modern amenities, like the metro stations that I found so dazzling.

I now find myself thinking of everyone I left behind, all of the people from whom I have heard nothing at all since I left my country. Then I was eleven years old, hungry, and without a home. My aunts, my uncles, my friends at school ... have they survived the famine? On the train, another rider stares at me out of the corner of his eye, as if I am some outsider who doesn't belong here. Still, I have tried my hardest to blend in, with my high heels, short skirt, and tight jacket. Whether or not I have succeeded in looking like I'm from South Korea, the reality is that I was born in Eundeok, a small industrial village in North Hamgyong Province, on August 15, 1986, in North Korea. In my quest for liberty and freedom, I have finally reached South Korea, after a nine-year journey across China and Mongolia. Here in Seoul, I have a passport. I no longer have to live in hiding, and I have built a new life for myself.

However, my memories of the north regularly come back to me, and one question in particular still haunts me: Why must the people of my home country continue to live in such suffering? Since arriving in Seoul, I have learned, through reading various books and newspapers, that the misery in North Korea is the fault of an absurd totalitarian regime. The country is a complete economic disaster. The Kim family dynasty, the world's only communist dynasty, ruthlessly crushes any dissent.

These answers do not satisfy me and do little to assuage the unease in my heart. On the contrary, in fact, these answers make me feel totally powerless. I live barely forty kilometers from the barbed-wire border that separates me from my homeland, and yet there is nothing that I can do for my people, who are drained of energy by the famine and by the repression of an unrelenting totalitarian regime. For the twenty-five million people who live there, North Korea has become a true hell on earth, forgotten by the rest of the world. Even South Koreans, who share the same blood heritage, seem to have forgotten about the plight of their northern counterparts. At times, I feel overwhelmed by this sense of helplessness, by the feeling that there is nothing I can do to help my brothers and sisters to the north.


Excerpted from A Thousand Miles to Freedom by Eunsun Kim, Sébastien Falletti, David Tian. Copyright © 2012 Éditions Michel Lafon. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Customer Reviews