By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Eunsun Kim with Sebastien Falletti
Narration by: Emily Woo Zeller
Because of sharply contrasting images of North Korea, several books have been written about life in a country of little light and mighty ambition. Refugees and outside analysts of North Korea consistently identify a government cult of personality that propagandizes utopia while systematically starving, imprisoning, torturing, and murdering its people. “A Thousand Miles to Freedom” is a story of human endurance; i.e. its coda is “never give up”. Its story rings hollow in some details but rings clear in its depiction of a North Korean family’s escape from a repressive and totalitarian regime.
After nine years of struggle, beginning at the age of 11, Eunsun Kim manages to escape North Korea. Accompanied by her mother and sister, Eunsun Kim crosses the river between North Korea and China only to be re-captured after her mother is sold into a “marriage” of convenience. After capture, Eunsun Kim and her mother are released, captured again, and then successfully smuggled into Mongolia by human traffickers. Nine years from their first escape, Eunsun Kim and her mother are finally liberated in Seoul, South Korea. Eunsun Kim’s sister successfully hides in China when Eunsun Kim and her mother are first captured. This older sister eventually joins Eunsun Kim and her mother in Seoul.
The elements of Eunsun Kim’s story that ring clear are the advantage taken by human traffickers of refugees in country-to-country agreements that victimize people who are trying to escape starvation, imprisonment, torture, and murder in their home countries. “A Thousand Miles to Freedom” is not the only book that identifies a China/N. Korea agreement that compels repatriation of North Korea escapees to their home countries. When refugees from North Korea cross into China, they become prey for human traffickers who enrich themselves by selling females to locals, taking bribes, or charging high prices for the opportunity to reach other countries. Human trafficking becomes a business as a result of country-to-country repatriation agreements, nation state’ neglect, and human greed.
As a consequence of human desperation, inadvertent luck, and inherent tenacity, Eunsun Kim and her family manage to reach Seoul, South Korea. The humanitarian aid provided by South Korea allows Eunsun Kim and her mother to get a new start in life. Eunsun Kim’s tenacious pursuit of education, in the face of lost high school years, pushes her to complete a college degree. In spite of many obstacles, Eunsun Kim graduates from college and plans to earn a Master’s Degree in Psychology. This remarkable young woman manages to learn Chinese and English as a child in extremity. She now lectures around the world about her experience as a North Korean refugee.
Eunsun Kim’s story is a tribute to the human drive for survival. The value of education is reinforced when seen in the light of an eleven year old who misses nine years of preparation and manages to graduate from college, co-write a book, and plan for a future. Disadvantaged and/or ill-educated human beings should not give up. Eunsun Kim sets an example for those who choose to never give up. Her story highlights the human cost of unfair treatment of refugees from countries that are imprisoning, torturing, and murdering their own citizens. Most refugees are not criminals. They are survivors.
Eunsun Kim’s story may not be perfectly accurate for reasons of conscience, but her story is consistent with other refugee stories. Eunsun Kim’s survival shows how every country has a stake in the outcome of the world’s refugees.