OREM — Jiyeon Song excitedly moves through a pile of 20 or so presents at her baby shower hosted by a friend from church. The 34-year-old expectant mother doesn’t just remove the wrapping, she tears through cardboard and plastic product packaging to reveal what’s inside. She removes an elephant-shaped humidifier from a large box, balanced carefully on her knees, and proudly holds it up for the crowd to see, eyes beaming behind round-rimmed glasses.
A few months ago, Song hadn’t even heard of a baby shower. The idea of a big party where a mother is showered with gifts is totally unheard of in North Korea, where she comes from.
After packing the bounty — clothing, toys, blankets — into their car, Song and her husband, Donghyun Kim, are overwhelmed with gratitude.
“We were worried about how we would buy everything when the baby was born,” said Song, whose first child, a baby boy, is due April 12. “We didn’t expect so many gifts.”
At the beginning of February, the day before the party, the bishop of their LDS ward delivered a crib and a stroller from an anonymous donor.
“We cannot imagine that happening in North Korea,” said Kim.
The refugee couple are among the nearly 300,000 people estimated to have defected from North Korea since 1953. Most have fled to Russia, China and South Korea. Fewer than 300 North Korean refugees have been admitted to the United States, with about 200 more who are here illegally. Some follow the same path of Kim and Song, who settled in South Korea and then came here on non-immigrant visas. They know of just one other North Korean couple in Utah.
As they cheerfully prepare for a new addition to their family, Song and Kim exercise the Christian faith they embraced on their journey to freedom and pray tirelessly for the siblings and parents they left behind. They watch the news about the “Rocket Man’s” recent nuclear tests and the joint North Korean and South Korean hockey team competing in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. They hear President Donald Trump threaten to destroy their home country and their hearts freeze. There are 25 million people there.
The decision to leave
In 2009, standing on the train platform before his departure from North Korea, Kim studied his wife’s expression. Her broad cheekbones were weighed down by her somber round eyes. They had been married for two years, and she thought he was leaving for a 15-day business trip, but he knew it might be the last time he ever saw her. He was taking the train to a border city where he would meet an escape broker and prepare to leave the country.
He wanted to clutch her close, to give sound to the fear inside him and to promise he would send for her once he got out, but a dramatic display might reveal his plan, and any knowledge of it could put his wife in danger. So he continued watching for the train, grasping his wife’s hand more firmly in an attempt to calm his racing heart.
“We don’t have to stay here, you know,” Kim recalled saying. “What if there was a better place for us? We could go live there.”
Song nodded. Another city in North Korea maybe, she remembers thinking at the time.
Despite everything he had to lose, something was calling Kim away. Maybe it was God. It started after high school when he began to doubt the supreme leadership of the Kim dynasty. His family was comfortably middle class and always had enough to eat. Kim’s father was a military officer and owned a business. But he saw other families who were starving; hospitals that offered free health care but had no medicine; schools and media whose only purpose was cultivating loyalty to the regime; and desperate people publicly executed for petty crimes. A desire for freedom began to haunt him.
One night in 2005, when Kim was 23, he was awakened by the sound of dogs barking. He looked out his window to see dozens of armed soldiers and policemen, made visible by the hazy moonlight and moving flashlight beams. They entered several of the neighborhood homes and emerged dragging whole families — parents and children still wearing their pajamas — into the street. Blood soaked through their shirts where the soldiers beat them with the butts of their guns. One by one, they pushed the people forward with kicks and shoves, and loaded them into several green trucks, tossing the children like packages.
Kim watched the scene in stunned silence, trying to imagine what horrible crime they must have committed when, spontaneously, the people began to sing. It was a song he had never heard with lyrics that were completely foreign. “Hananim,” “Yeongsaeng,” they wailed. “God,” “eternal life.” It was vocabulary he did not understand.
As the sound of their singing grew, the soldiers responded with greater violence, but the people who were certainly facing death or life in a labor camp looked dignified and noble to Kim. He wanted to know what that song meant.
In 2011, an eccentric young man named Kim Jong Un became the leader of North Korea. The country’s average citizens had never heard of him, nor did they have any say in his ascension to power. But he was the son of Kim Jong Il and the grandson of Kim Il-sung, the country’s previous two communist dictators, and he was held up by the government like a king. Kim decided it was time to get out.
Kim never returned from his “business trip.” His 25-year-old wife was completely unaware of his plans. All at once, Song mourned for his death, his imprisonment, his kidnapping and her abandonment. She waited for a month, then two, then eight. She avoided going outside. With nothing but her crying to fill the silence in their home, she surrounded herself with the things he touched: his clothes, pictures, blankets, his favorite chair.
Then one day, Song got a phone call.
“I’ve met your husband Donghyun Kim and he wants to know if you’re OK,” said the voice of a stranger. She recalled that hearing her husband’s name was like waking up from a dream.
“Hello! Hello!” she begged, but the man had hung up. She felt choked by a mixture of joy and devastation. Her husband was alive somewhere where he couldn’t call her, and that meant he had escaped from North Korea. But that meant she would never be able to see him again.
She waited painfully for another call. The stranger, a young broker who helped people escape from North Korea for money, finally called back a few days later and told Song to meet him in a northern city near the Chinese border. There, he brought her to the top of a mountain where she was finally able to call her husband using a Chinese cellphone.
“Hello?” Her husband's voice cut through the sorrow and fear of the past year and the emotion burst out of her in raw sobs, she recalled.
After several minutes of trying to speak peace to his wife, Kim asked, “Jiyeon, do you want to come to me?”
It meant risking her life and leaving everything behind. The price of escape was about $8,000, but without hesitation, her answer was yes.
A day before she was scheduled to leave, Song talked to Kim again. Quietly, he told her, “Jiyeon, you need to pray to God. Pray to him and ask him to bring you safely to me. If you do, he will hear your prayer.”
Song was confused by the strange beliefs her husband had developed since leaving. What was God? What was praying? He explained that God lives in the sky and asking him for the things we need most is called praying. It was odd, she thought, but Song trusted her husband and promised to do it.
“One more thing,” Kim said. “Whatever happens, whatever terrible situation you find yourself in, please don’t end your life.”
Kim knew the thoughts would come. When he was hiding in a fifth-floor apartment in China, he vowed to jump out the window if he was caught and not face a life of imprisonment. But he could not imagine that fate for his wife: “Wherever you are in the world — whatever happens to you — I will come and save you.”
“I would never die before I can see you again,” Song answered.
The next night, Song walked with the broker about a mile to the border. The December sky was dark, without stars, and the Yalu River, which separates North Korea from China, was frozen over. Song was dressed in her warmest winter clothing, a gray coat and boots. At any moment, soldiers might appear and shoot them.
“You must cross here,” the broker said. “A Chinese broker will meet you on the other side.”
Alone and seized with fear, Song walked to the riverbank, straining her eyes to see 60 meters across to the other side. As she stepped on the ice, a loud cracking sound echoed in the brittle air, but the ice did not break. With no time to think, she took another step. With each movement, the sound of the ice splintering under her weight was like thunder in her ears. Or was it the sound of gunshots? She wasn’t sure. Staring straight ahead, she continued putting one foot in front of the other.
“I am still alive; I am still alive,” she repeated to herself.
Using all her strength, she clambered up the river bank on the other side, until she came to a 3-meter barbed wire fence that stood in her way. Without pause, she began to climb. She has no memory of how exactly she got over it. All she remembers is looking up at the fence one minute and then standing on the opposite side the next, hands bloody and clothes torn.
Song was out of North Korea, but the journey was far from over. From China, she would travel by boat, bus, auto and on foot with the help of brokers to Laos and then to Thailand, hiding from authorities and battling the elements, sickness and fear before finally arriving in South Korea three months later.
A new life
Kim and Song describe the day in 2011 when they were reunited in Seoul as the happiest of their lives. They met at a National Intelligence Service building where Song was being held and interrogated to make sure she was not a spy — a normal part of the defector resettlement process. It had been a full year since their separation, and the trauma they endured melted into a puddle of relief as they embraced without words.
Despite never attending college, Kim and Song, now in their late 20s, easily found jobs as accountants, and with cheap rent provided by the South Korean government, they set up a life for themselves in Seoul. Kim immediately started to explore organized religion. He credited God for bringing him and his wife to safety but had little concrete understanding of who God was.
“As human beings, when we are hungry we seek food and when we are thirsty we seek water. This is our nature. In the same way, I believe that someday, at some point, it is in our nature to seek God,” said Kim.
Song reluctantly accompanied her husband to various Protestant and Catholic services for several years, sleeping through many of them, before meeting missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2014. Until then, she had very little interest in religion, but she felt something was different about the young missionaries, and she eventually began attending the LDS Church on her own.
The church was much smaller and shabbier than the cathedral where Kim attended services, but Song finally convinced her husband to come with her.
“The second I opened the door and stepped into the church, I felt strongly something I had never felt before,” said Kim. “It was the spirit of God.”
He recognized it was the same spirit that had given him strength when he was considering suicide in China, when he was riding a rickety boat down a raging river in Laos and battling a 104-degree fever in Thailand.
“I was struck with such a happy feeling,” said Kim. “In that small church I felt as if the word 'God' were floating above the air in huge letters.”
Song was baptized in June, and Kim was baptized in December 2014.
For the past 14 years, North Korea has been ranked as the most religiously oppressive country in the world by Open Doors, a group that tracks Christian persecution.
Before World War II, missionaries were active throughout the Korean peninsula, and at the time, more than one-fifth of the population was Christian. Today, between 300,000 and 500,000 Christians are believed to remain in North Korea, most of them forced to practice secretly. Close to 50,000 of those people are believed to be held in North Korean concentration camps, according to a report published by the British group Aid to the Church in Need last year.
The reason for such harsh treatment is that believers place loyalty to God before that of the North Korean state.
Adjusting to America
In South Korea, Kim and Song were happy and free to express their religious beliefs. But they felt God pulling them to continue their journey. After nearly five years in Seoul they decided to come to Provo, Utah, in 2015. They wanted to pursue education and believed that if they studied in America, they would have a greater ability to help their home country someday.
Kim and Song are taking classes at Brigham Young University’s English Language Center and plan to apply to BYU, where Kim hopes to study human rights, and Song wants to study mathematics. For now Kim is working as a custodian and working with his wife on a book that tells their life and love story.
On a recent January morning, Kim and Song sat at the kitchen table in their basement apartment, provided by a generous BYU Korean professor, and struggled to decipher a medical bill — a $100 charge for a blood test Song didn’t remember taking — that was now two months overdue. It’s one example of the struggles Kim and Song have faced preparing for a new baby while adjusting to life in a foreign country.
But they are full of hope.
“The fact that I can wake up to the rising sun every morning and spend another day with my husband makes me the happiest person in the world,” said Song.
Song and Kim think about how they will teach their son about where they came from.
Kim doesn’t plan on revealing the truth about where they came from until his son is a teenager: “Because it will be impossible for him to understand North Korean life.”
Song and Kim’s son may not ever get to know the land of his ancestors or meet his grandparents, aunts and uncles. He may never fully understand the privilege and price of freedom, but he will grow up in a country where he has the ability to pursue his dreams, in a family that will teach him he is a child of God, and in a world that is, hopefully, a little more at peace.
More than anything, Kim and Song hope their son will grow up to be someone who considers the suffering of others, knows how to serve and does not think only of himself.
“Because we have received so much,” said Song.