For North Koreans, entering freer countries is like encountering a new universe: the lies of a lifetime under a totalitarian government become exposed. That revelation begins - to a degree - in the relative freedom of China, with its market-oriented policies and greater personal liberties. However, it is in Thailand where most get their first taste of real freedom to decide where to go, what to do, and who or what to believe in. For some, the feeling brings exhilaration - but also fear of being suddenly on their own. In the final installment in his series tracing the lives of North Korean refugees, VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Bangkok.
From birth, people in North Korea are taught that the late leader Kim Il Sung and his son, current leader Kim Jong Il are near-divine, all-powerful father-like figures. A young woman who fled to Thailand via China says the lie became apparent to her from the moment she crossed the river out of the North. Life, she learned, is possible without Kim the father and Kim the son.
She says, "Before, at mealtimes, we would say: 'thank you, Dear Leader,' and then we would eat. Since I came to Thailand, I met God. In North Korea, we were taught that Kim Jong-II and God are the same. We, as Christians, give thanks to God. In North Korea, we gave thanks to Kim Jong-Il and Kim-Il Sung."
Key to this transformation are Christian missionaries, who - working secretly in China and Thailand - help feed and clothe the refugees and preach to them. "They have much pain in their hearts,” one pastor said. “Before they adopt any new beliefs, the first they need to do is to relieve their pain inside. Then, they can accommodate a new belief in Christianity. So I try my best to cure the pain in their hearts and turn them into mature, beautiful Christians."
North Koreans usually get passage to South Korea in one to three months by surrendering to Thai police. However, some choose to go to the United States, and that takes considerably longer.
The waiting time gives the missionaries - funded by churches in South Korea and the U.S. - more opportunity to evangelize.
A young woman tells VOA she was imprisoned several times in North Korea for trying to escape. She says hiding in Bangkok while waiting for her papers to go to the U.S. seems at times unbearable. She worries about her future, and taking care of herself in an unfamiliar, free society like that of the United States.
"I know South Koreans are very successful in other countries, even though they have not previously experienced other countries. You have to know that for us North Koreans, we have lived in a closed society with our eyes shut. So we have never learned anything about other countries," she said.
She says that hearing more balanced accounts about the United States since leaving North Korea has made her want to go there. "When I was in North Korea, I was taught from my young age that America was our life enemy. That is why I was a bit hesitant of whether I should go to America or not. But when I was away from North Korea, I realized that America was not such bad country as I was taught in North Korea."
Since crossing the border, she has had enough to eat. Driving her now are her dreams of freedom. She says, "If I go to America, I have a lot of things I want to do by myself, on my own. For example, I want to start a clothing shop. I have no experience, no knowledge, but I have a lot of hope"
That hope is shared by hundreds of North Koreans who undertake the perilous journey each year - risking everything for a taste of freedom and a chance to prosper on their own.