RUNNING through pouring rain in the dark, driven by starvation and fear, Sehyek Oh made his break for freedom.
Across the freezing River Tumen lay China and escape.
What this remarkable man was about to achieve is what millions of North Koreans dream of everyday, liberation from the brutality of one of history’s most notorious totalitarian regimes.
Now, aged 35, and ten years after he left his home and family behind, Sehyek reflects on that night from his home in one of Sheffield University’s halls of residence.
The night he swam across the river to find a new life and left behind a country closed off from the rest of the world and one ravaged by famine, shortages of water, electricity and money. A country filled with political paranoia and a dictator who showed no mercy to his own people: “I would wake up every day and see people either dying or dead on the road,” he said.
“Sometimes there would be piles of bodies on top of each other. Kim Jong-il never helped us. He caused people to die.”
From 1990-1997, it is estimated that three million people died from starvation in North Korea, a situation that shows little sign of improving.
Sehyek remembers what it was like for his family in their hometown of Haeju: “The government provides the country with food. Some days there would be nothing for us to eat,” he reveals.
“I would probably only get chance to eat maybe two or three times a week. It was nothing more than a bowl of rice most of the time.”
Such hardships have left 42% of North Koreans suffering stunted growth and with a population three inches shorter than the average South Korean - a situation made worse by the Workers’ Party government confiscating many farmers’ harvests.
“Kim il-sung and Kim Jong-il would always tell us that our country is the greatest, that we must give up our own individuality for the common-good,” said Sehyek.
“They made us believe they were gods, that they would feed us and everything would be fine.”
But Sehyek describes life as “living in a nightmare.”
With no internet or phones, and a television set dedicated exclusively to the musings of a cruel dictator, North Koreans are banned from communicating with the outside world. All knowledge is provided and dictated by the regime and vast surveillance systems are in place throughout the country to monitor citizens.
But Sehyek is one of thousands every year who manage to escape in search of a ‘normal’ life.
What led to it was desperation.
Starving and broke, Sehyek had taken to stealing to survive: “I was looking for food on a farm, so I left Haeju and went on a train to find some,” he recalls.
“I did not have any travel documents and a guard on the train arrested me, and threatened to take me to a labour camp. Luckily they released me near a rice field right next to the River Tumen, which separates China from North Korea. From then I knew I could escape. So I waited till it was dark, and ran across the field, and then swam over the river to China. I just took my chance.”
“I stayed in Yoengil City with some other Korean defectors in a church quite close to the North Korean border for two years,” he remembers.
“They gave me new clothes, food, some money and more importantly, protection from the Chinese police. But I was a wanted man.”
“I moved around China for several years, just trying to get away from the police. I was always looking over my shoulder.”
“I met an American missionary in China. I told him how I fled and that I wanted to go to South Korea,” he recalls.
“He bought me a train ticket to Beijing so I could talk to the South Korean embassy.”
But for a North Korean to be granted citizenship, the individual must find their own way to South Korea, without government help. Sehyek’s pleas were rejected by the German embassy which led him to break in to the German embassy to fight his case.
“I found an area of the embassy which wasn’t heavily guarded,” he describes. “I jumped over the wall, ran into the building and them I was a North Korea fugitive and needed help.”
The German government then co-operated with South Korea and the Chinese to send him to Seoul, where he lives as a South Korean citizen and is free to study in Sheffield. At the age of thirty-five, he now devotes his life to catching up on the education denied him as a younger man.
Sehyek’s passion is politics and after studying in South Korea, he came to the University of Sheffield in 2011 for a postgraduate degree in Globalisation and Development.
“North Korea is part of my life that I will never forget,” he admits. Everything I do is to help build a future for my country.”
That future he envisages is a united Korea, one that will finally come together after almost 60 years apart. Leaving North Korea has come at a great cost for Sehyek but he has never regretted leaving North Korea. “I probably would have died. Now I have that chance to be different, I’m grateful for that.”
I’m a normal person in Sheffield
SEHYEK Oh left family behind in North Korea and has no idea what happened to them.
But he fears the worst.
“If a North Korean flees the country, one of the things they threaten you with is torturing your family,” he reveals.
“I left my father and sister there.”
Under North Korean law, family members of defectors are sent to labour camps – Sehyek likens these to Nazi concentration camps - as punishment for their relatives’ perceived traitorous behaviour.
When he left Sehyek lost all contact with his family and has no idea if they are still alive: “I hope they are of course, but I really do not know.”
Seyhek says he does not think too much about life in North Korea and spares no time pitying himself.
“I don’t think too much about the past,” he said.
“I just feel like a normal person now. I have been very happy in Sheffield. I have to say I am living with good people here. My friends from other coutries also say that people in Sheffield are really friendly.
“When I come face to face with people on the street, I would say over 70 percent of them smile even if I have never met them. That really impresses me and will live in my memories for long time after going back to South Korea.”
So how does life in Sheffield compare with life in North Korea?
“This question sounds strange to me.” said Sehyek.
“Do you like the freedom to have an iPhone or the very old phone only good for receiving signals and leaving messages?
“I think North Korea is the country in that era.
”I don’t need to be scared if anyone watches me speaking in the street.
“I am really happy now and I am under no obligation to say my life is like this, it is the truth.”
With his University fees paid for by the British Government as part of a programme to help North Korean refugees, Sehyek is able to live a life undreamed of in the country of his birth.
“Now, I am fully satisfied with my current life. I have done everthing I wanted, I am going to get three university diplomas including one I am studying now in Sheffield without spending my own money, which I could have never ever dreamed in North Korea.
“I think I became a lucky guy after escaping from North Korea.”