North Koreans used to be a common sight in Yanji, the largest town in the Korean autonomous prefecture in China. Starting from about 1994, when the end of state rations led to famine, thousands fled across the border. Orphans would beg outside shops. Starving adults ate food provided by local churches. Ten years later, the police cracked down and drove the community of defectors and illegals deep underground. These days they live in fear of being abused by the Chinese or even worse, sent back over.
On a weekday in March, a South Korean familiar with the region, who referred to himself as "an ambassador to God," reluctantly offered to introduce us to one. "You're white and stand out too much," he said to me, but he agreed to take my translator. Here is what she told me, with some details changed to protect their anonymity:
We drove into the countryside for an hour. It was very desolate, with almost no lights; abandoned construction sites peppering the landscape. Eventually we reached a narrow road so simple that it looked handmade, blocked by a heavy metal gate. We opened the gate and approached what appeared to be a former schoolhouse, dark except for two lights. An old man descended. He was so happy to see us he extended both hands and gave a wince-worthy ninety degree bow to the South Korean. We ascended a staircase with no banister to the second floor, which was crumbling and had several bare rooms, one filled with heaps of coal, and one filled with firewood, which he'd collected. His oblong room had a makeshift bench covered with aluminum foil, a kettle, two socks dangling from a clothesline, two chairs, maybe four or five jackets or flannels, a few pairs of pants, and a small sack of rice by the window. It was stark, like a medieval monastery. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling.
"I have about ten days of rice left in that sack," he said. He had well-kept hair and an easy smile. He launched into his story as though he had turned it over in his head many times. When he spoke, he rocked back and forth slightly.
"I was born in 1946 in a house by the sea. I was on the national people's soccer team for twelve years. After soccer, I worked in a school for many years and retired in 2006. In 2001 I went on a work related trip. When I came back I found my wife had died of starvation. I have one daughter and one son remaining. I left in 2008 and took any work I could find to live. My daughter and her husband can barely feed themselves, how could they feed me?
"Now I'm trying to write my autobiography. It will be a very thick book. What would my life mean without writing?"