Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A Thousand Miles to Freedom

My Escape from North Korea

Eunsun Kim with Sébastien Falletti, trans. by David Tian

St. Martin's Griffin



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.

Copyright © 2012 by Éditions Michel Lafon

Epilogue copyright © 2015 by Eunsun Kim and Sébastien Falletti

Translation copyright © 2015 by David Tian