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'If I didn't leave, I would've had to eat human flesh,' says N. Korean escaping to Oz

Updated: 18 Apr 2013
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Mr. Jeong
Journey... Mr Jeong did not want his face to be identifiable.
 
In a marketplace in Chongjin, a city at the tip of the North Korean coast, a shopkeeper is said to serve up a special dish for working men to eat with alcohol.
 
That dish is human flesh.

The thought he would one day have to eat a fellow human was what drove one Chongjin resident to escape from the nightmare state - to Australia - in a story so incredible it's almost made for TV.

In an exclusive interview with news.com.au via a translator, Sung Min Jeong, 44, has told of his tortuous journey from Chongjin to Cherrybrook NSW, and gave a rare and horrifying insight into a country that's always in the news, but which we know so little about.

"One of his strongest thoughts is…if he didn't take steps to leave North Korea, he would've become a North Korean who ate human flesh," Mr Jeong says through an interpreter.

Mr Jeong has today decided to tell his story because the clock is ticking on his stay in Australia.
Despite his desperate circumstances, he is in danger of being deported by the Federal Government.
 
If Australia is the 'lucky country', you have to be extremely unlucky to have grown up in North Korea.

That's the case even if you are relatively well off, as Mr Jeong was, because his father was a soldier, originally from China. They lived in a modest one-storey house in the industrial city and grew vegetables like spinach and potatoes out the back.

To live in North Korea in the 1980s and '90s was to experience a series of nationwide depressions - both economic and emotional ones. Between 1995 and 1997, when the famine that killed at least one million North Koreans struck Chongjin, Mr Jeong would see bodies strewn across the streets of his city.

This followed a period of great grief. In his four years at primary school, Mr Jeong and his friends had been taught North Korea's founder, Kim Il-Sung, was a god-like figure.

Kim Jong-un
Tensions have mounted on the Korean peninsula in recent months, as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un blusters. Picture: AFP
 
To live in North Korea is to live under an extraordinary kind of thought control. When he was a teenager, Mr Jeong grew worried when he wondered what it would be like if Il-Sung died.

"This was a thought I did not dare to voice, but now I wonder why and how I was able to think it," Mr Jeong says now.

When Il-Sung eventually died, the country shut down in mourning. North Koreans were encouraged to join public crying sessions, and despite Mr Jeong not feeling the same sympathies to the 'Dear Leader' as many of his friends, even he felt compelled to cry.

But because of his father's military background, he occasionally got to read foreign newspapers at the houses of wealthy boys, and out of curiosity he would listen to South Korean radio under his sheets.
 
When he had grown up, he worked selling goods, like alcohol and tobacco, on the black market.

North Korea was not the place for an independent mind like his.

MR JEONG'S STORY OF ESCAPE

THERE IS a buzzing in Sung's ears today that makes it difficult to talk to him. He says that's from the torture he experienced at the hands of Chinese security forces.

Mr Jeong had nothing to lose. He had no family left. His parents were dead - his mother, of disease - and his sister, Sun Hwa Jeong, 7, died when he was one year old.
 
Mr. Jeong
Journey.... Mr Jeong has come a long way - from Chongjing to Strathfield, in Sydney's west.

It is difficult to corroborate Mr Jeong's story beyond what other defectors have told about North Korea, but his story has been taken at face value by his lawyers and the Department of Immigration.

His escape from North Korea in 2003 is remarkable in its ordinariness. In some areas, one of the two rivers that makes up the China-Korea border, the Tumen, is little more than ten steps wide. All you have to do is run or swim over.

The border was dangerous in the wintertime and at night, with North Korean soldiers keeping a vigilant eye. But at other times of the year, when the sun was out, the troops manning the checkpoints were often just too busy stuffing around to notice the escapees.

So when Mr Jeong turned up to a guardpost at the border one morning, he was pleased to find nobody there. He sucked on a cigarette, waiting to see if any guards would show up. When they didn't, he stepped over the river.

It was that easy.

He was happy living in the Chinese border communities. There was a big community of North Korean expats who supported him and the locals didn't really care another one had joined them.

He even found love - for a while, before Chinese authorities are understood to have handed his girlfriend, Hee Lee Myung, over to the North Koreans.

Chinese authorities are none too happy about illegal immigrants from Korea, and Mr Jeong himself was in big trouble when they caught him on a train in 2004.

North Korean girl
Famine... An emaciated brother & sister lie prone at Unsun kindergarten in South Pyongyang in 1997. Picture: World Food Program
 
Police stomped on his head, Mr Jeong says. They beat him with bats, daily, holding him in prison for more than 20 days. The security service interrogated him over whether if he had been in touch with any Christian missionaries, or if he was planning to go to South Korea. He'd receive a life sentence if he did.

Despite his protests, the Chinese handed him over to the North Koreans again, where he spent a month in a concentration camp. He was deployed to a worksite out in the country, and he and four friends escaped over the border at the same place he had previously - easily, again, he adds.

But not long after he got back to China, in 2005, the authorities caught him again on a bus. He knew he wouldn't be able to handle another stint in prison. He slit his wrists after a few days in prison and passed out. Mr Jeong's wrists still bear scars today.

He woke up on the third level of a Chinese hospital, shackled to his bed, his story goes. Guards monitoring him would change shifts every 12 hours, and he made friends with a security man on the night shift.

The security man fell asleep one night - he says, after having a couple of drinks with Mr Jeong - and he then used a hairpin left behind by a nurse to unlock his shackles. Mr Jeong says he broke the glass window and jumped down to the ground. He points to scars on the left side of his face and on the flesh connecting his index finger and thumb as evidence.

He managed to get 200m away from the hospital when he was caught again by security. Mr Jeong got on his knees and begged for his life.

"Please, consider me your younger brother," he told the security man, pleading that he would be beaten to death if he was taken in by the Chinese police for a third time.

The security man showed him mercy, Mr Jeong says, warning him never to return to the province. His saga with the Chinese police was over.
 
emaciated kid
An emaciated four-year-old in hospital during the famine in 1997. Picture: WFP
 
WHERE TO FROM HERE?
 
'WELCOME TO SYDNEY', says a giant sign at arrivals at the city's international airport. It's aimed at residents and tourists, but each year it also greets thousands of refugees.

More than 6000 asylum seekers arrived by plane in 2011, and Mr Jeong was one them. In late March, he set foot in Australia at the Botany Bay airport for the first time.

The sheer chutzpah of Sung's journey here is breathtaking. Growing up in North Korea, Mr Jeong had never heard of Australia. He didn't even know it was a country.

But in one of the towns along the Chinese border where many Koreans lived he heard Australia was a place he could go, live in peace, and make money working as a welder.

Mr Jeong made friends with a wealthy local businessman who ran a big supermarket and was involved in the people smuggling trade.

They purchased a spot for him on a Chinese tour group's trip to Australia, buying a man's place, passport (which they got doctored) and all.

Mr Jeong ditched the tour group when he got here, and on his second day in Sydney, he headed to the Department of Immigration, near the city's Central Station transport hub.
 
He approached the reception desk and cried: "North Korea! North Korea! North Korea!", as he had been told to say by the people smuggler.
 
Officials granted Mr Jeong a bridging visa, which is a placeholder accreditation that allows people to stay in Australia while Immigration decides on their future. 

He did it rough, living in a Sydney hostel, even working as a welder in Horsley Park, in the city's far south-west.
 
But in November 2011 he received a letter which said his application for a refugee protection visa had been rejected.
 
Why? Because South Korea claims all North Koreans are their citizens too. And Australian law, reiterated by a High Court decision last year, says if a third country will give asylum seekers protection, then Australia will not allow them to stay.
 
Lawyers believe more than 70 North Korean asylum seekers were placed into legal limbo by the High Court decision, and several have been deported.

Mr Jeong does not want to go to South Korea. "The reality is, in South Korea, North Koreans are persecuted," his lawyer, Chris McArdle, says. He is also concerned about Northern spies.
 
There's hope for Mr Jeong, who now lives with a kind Korean-Australian family in their Cherrybrook apartment, in Sydney's north. A Federal court will hear his case on April 30, his 45th birthday.
 
North Korea
More than one million people gather near images of North Korea's leaders Kim Il-Sung and son Kim Jong-Il, in 2000.
 
A spokeswoman for the Department of Immigration said: "As this person is before the court, arrangements for removal are not being made."

"It would be inappropriate to go into any more detail because it is before the court."

His lawyers will argue that he may have Chinese citizenship - his father was a Chinese military liason to North Korea - which could save him.

If the court rules against him, his only hope will be for the Immigration Minister to make the extraordinary move of granting him a visa.

But despite the poor state of his country, Mr Jeong says he would go back to North Korea one day, if the system changes.

He's lonely here, and even laments that the veggies here just aren't as fresh as those grown in the backyard of his Korean home.

"What human being cannot miss his hometown?" he says through an interpreter.

Ultimately, though, it's all about something else that Australia has in abundance. "He just wants to live in freedom and peace."
 
SOURCE: news.com.au
 

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