When North Koreans decide to flee to South Korea, they resolve to make two decisions: one is to reach South Korea alive; another is to commit suicide if caught by the authorities.
North Korean defectors know what torture and punishment await them in the case they are repatriated back to North Korea after leaving the country, because the North Korean state declares that leaving the country is a criminal offense. In this context, suicide is not only an escape from punishment; it can also serve as a political statement. North Korean exile Kim Seok-young told us, “Suicide is considered a subversive crime against the North Korean state, so I planned to commit suicide if I was caught. I wanted my last act to serve as a protest against the state.”
North Korean defectors pack pills that help them succeed on their journey, as well as pills to commit suicide if caught. The suicide pill often takes the form of rat-poison, especially for those who can’t fathom taking their lives with a razor blade. The survival pill is the sleeping pill, especially for those who make the journey with babies or young children. Sleeping pills are considered a prerequisite for the journey out of North Korea and through China – travel brokers who assist defectors even have them ready for parents who have forgotten to pack them.
As North Korean defectors journey through China, travel at night is often necessary. It is dangerous for babies and young children to make a noise, as it might jeopardize the whole party. Travel brokers too are at risk of harsh punishment if they are caught aiding North Koreans who are fleeing from North Korea; and so the sleeping pill is considered a must-feed item for young children, despite the obvious dangers.
Shin Kyong-won, 35 years old, only realized how risky it was to give sleeping pills to babies after reaching South Korea. She told us, “If I had known that it could have had fatal consequences for my baby, I would not have attempted to flee from North Korea. I only made the journey because I did not know better.”
There is an old Korean saying that “the cry of a child is life for a family”. Yet for North Korean defectors traveling through China, the cry of a child is death for the family.
A North Korean mother and child