COLUMBIA — As Mi-jin Kang and her 14-year-old daughter stood in front of the Aprok River, she felt the bitter wind piercing through her skin.
Kang recalled closely watching the daily routines of North Korean soldiers for a month before she finally knew what to wait for. As two soldiers moved away from their posts to take a 10-minute break, Kang and her daughter crossed the frozen river into China.
"I didn't believe in God, but as we were running, I prayed with all my heart," Kang said in Korean. The reporter for this story, Heesu Lee, is fluent in the language and conducted most interviews for this story in Korean.
After a year of traveling through China and Thailand, Kang and her daughter arrived in South Korea in 2010. She is now a reporter at an online publication where she analyzes North Korea's daily news.
Kang and six other North Korea-born journalists arrived in Columbia on April 16 as part of a Korea-U.S. Journalists Exchange funded by the U.S. Department of State and coordinated by the East-West Center in Hawaii.
Except for Kang, the names used in this story are those that the North Korean journalists publish under in South Korea. Their birth names are not used to protect the journalists' family members who remain in North Korea. Kang, however, changed her name after she left North Korea and wanted her name used.
Crossing the border
Although it has been three years since Gwang-jin Kim, also a reporter at an online publication, fled North Korea, his emotional wounds are still fresh. A couple of hours before he crossed the river to enter China with his family, he put his children to sleep by giving them sleeping pills.
"Two pills would work fine for an adult," Kim said. He gave his children more. "My children were just not falling asleep because they felt that something was going on."
When his children finally fell asleep, he carried them in large sacks above his head as he crossed the river. About 15 minutes after he stepped on Chinese soil, however, he found rifles pointed at him by Chinese guards.
"My children woke up, and they started vomiting because of the pills they had taken," Kim said. "When the Chinese guards saw how ill my children were, they said we had to go back to where we came from, and they left. It was their way of saying that they were letting us go."
According to the South Korea Ministry of Unification, there were an estimated 24,934 North Korean defectors living in South Korea in 2013.
Women make up 77 percent of the defector population, the ministry said. Some escape from North Korea by getting paid to marry Chinese men. Brokers, who arrange these marriages, pay the women and help them cross the border.
For Su-yeon Pak, tying the knot with a stranger in China was her only choice.
"Life became unbearable for me and for my family," said Pak, a producer of a radio program about her life as a North Korean defector. "I didn't tell my family when I made the decision because I knew that they wouldn't approve."
When she settled down with a Chinese man who lived in a secluded mountain valley, her broker paid 10,000 won, the North Korean currency, to her family with which they could buy about 55 pounds of rice.
Pak had a baby boy soon after, but her marriage lasted only four years. She left China and arrived in South Korea in 2008.
Life in North Korea
As a single mother, Kang's life in North Korea was like walking on thin ice. Although she had a farm that produced 12 tons of potatoes each year, she said she always had to worry about starving to death.
"No matter how much you work in North Korea, you have to worry about how to fill your stomach every single day," she said.
After getting into a small argument with a government official for not bribing him, she was forced to join the labor camps. North Korea's labor camps are notorious for making workers perform about twice as much work as regular citizens without providing adequate food or any compensation, Kang said.
"That's when I decided to leave North Korea despite the great risks associated with the whole journey," she said. "I had to do it for my daughter."
The Ministry of Unification said the number of defectors has been consistently growing since 1998. But for most of them, their journeys aren't over. Adapting to life in South Korea is another obstacle they must face.
Hye-min Son, editor of a magazine that focuses on North Korea's economy, culture and politics, said she had never felt lonely until she moved to South Korea.
"It's the utter loneliness that's really difficult to endure," she said. "It's also really hard to start a family with a South Korean man because of the society's stereotypes."
Examples include the perception that North Koreans have been brainwashed.
Sung-il Oh, a radio reporter, said it's the cultural differences that require the biggest adjustment.
"We were taught to perceive things in a certain way," Oh said. "I found that in a lot of situations, I couldn't understand South Koreans, and they couldn't understand me."
Part of the problem is that the Korean language as spoken by South Korean includes a lot of English expressions.
Hopes for the future
A common reason North Koreans enter the journalism profession is to accurately inform both North and South Koreans.
"I felt that South Korean media had little interest in human conditions and the rights of North Koreans unless there is a military threat or provocation," Kim said during a forum Thursday at the Missouri School of Journalism. "It's my job to bring those issues to light and make sure that Koreans from both borders are getting clear pictures of the reality."
Many journalists, including Kang, dream of a unified Korean peninsula.
"When my daughter said that we won't be able to come home again, I felt extremely sad and nostalgic," Kang said. "It would be wonderful if unification occurs, so that North Korean defectors can visit their hometowns again."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.