Kim Chan Sook: a true survivor’s tale

Let me introduce the true story of an extraordinary female medical doctor who escaped North Korea and now lives in the UK. I met her during my interviews with North Korean refugees and asylum seekers in the summer of 2014. She was in one of the focus group discussions I led as part of my research on secondary migration of North Koreans.


Cecila Kim (her adopted English name, a.k.a. Kim Chan Sook) stood out as one of the most responsive participants. I wanted to know more about her and decided to conduct in-depth interviews with her that later lasted for a week. After a week, I found a rare story of this 85-year-old lady who grew up in Seoul during the Japanese colonial period, joined the Korean People’s Army during the war, and lived both the best and worst times of North Korea before she left the country in late 1990s.


She was born in 1931 in Seoul as the first child of a big, middle-class household. Her father was a home textile tailor-maker and her uncles ran a publishing house that produced university textbooks. She was an avid reader from a young age and read many books in Japanese.


On 25 June 1950, North Korea invaded the South. Young and handsome Kim Il Sung University students were sent from Pyongyang to schools in Seoul, promoting free education and free healthcare. Cecila was one of many who were attracted to the socialist system of the time. Many intellectuals in the South left for the North to support and live in what was supposed to be a socialist paradise. Likewise, her motivation to follow the Korean People’s Army (the North’s army) is to go to university for free.


Cecila joined the army as a trainee nurse, treating hundreds of wounded North Korean soldiers. She is a live witness of many famous battle grounds, including the October 1950 Sukchon parachute landing by the US army, supported by British ground troops. Among the US troops, she was chased by African-American soldiers who she remembered were so strong and fast. She treated prisoners of war from South Korea and the US. One of them was an American soldier who showed her the photo of his fiancé.


After serving the army for 5 years, she was admitted to the Pyongyang Medical School. She is very witty saying it wasn’t her first choice; she wanted to be a nurse as becoming a doctor would require ‘a lot of studies’, she recalled.


North Korea was in its peak during the 1960s-70s. It was also the highlight of Cecilia’s life. She shared so many fascinating stories of ordinary existence in Pyongyang: romance along the Taedong River, chatting with friends in Stalin Street, high fashion of returning students from overseas studies in Moscow, visiting professors from Eastern Europe, music and movies and apartments for singles. This is only the tip of the iceberg Cecila still remembers vividly all these years. She is nostalgic about her time in Pyongyang.


What’s so impressive about Cecilia is her intelligence, curiosity and energy to learn new things. She wants to learn more about her newly adopted country, UK. I introduced her to British pubs, Westminster Abbey, fish and chips and a Spanish tapas bar near her home, the latter of which became her favourite restaurant.


Perhaps her intelligence on top of her background from Seoul bred suspicions in Pyongyang. She could never become a party member in spite of her 5 years’ service in the army. She regrets she said ‘merchant’ as her family background in Seoul, not ‘worker’ which could have made her life a lot easier in the socialist North. It was class (songbun) that determined people’s education, marriage and employment. She and her young daughter were sent to Sebyol, a remote mining town in North Hamgyong, far from Pyongyang.


Life was not easy in Sebyol. In the mine, she worked with prisoners of war from the South’s Kyongsang and Cholla. One day, Cecilia was hit by a mining cart and injured severely on her legs and head. Her daughter fainted during her second pregnancy because of the widespread famine in North Korea. Pregnant mothers didn’t have enough nutrition and many babies were born malnourished in the mid 1990s. In order to survive, she fled the country with her daughter and granddaughter in late 1990s.


In my 17 years of interviewing more than 500 North Koreans in China, Thailand, South Korea, and the UK, her story is most unique and authentic. Her bright eyes remind me of those of Hwang Jang Yup who I met in 1999. Even Hwang didn’t give me this impression of an extraordinary individual who survived the war, discrimination and famine.


Although she has led such an extraordinary life, Cecila didn’t publish her memoir as many North Koreans have done. She wanted to protect her families. She possesses such rich stories about daily North Korean lives that are important for us to understand North Korea better. She sees it’s time to share her stories with the world.* We don’t know what we don’t know about North Korea.


*The author, together with a historian (Owen Miller), an anthropologist (Markus Bell) and a librarian (EJ Kidd), are working on Cecilia’s memoir. The manuscript is expected to be finished in 2016.

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