Through a collaborative interview with Nehemiah Park (pseudonym), a North Korean who defected in 1997, I recently had the opportunity to interview Timothy Lee (pseudonym), a 16-year-old North Korean boy from the North Hamgeong province Hyesan city who escaped the country in 2011. Timothy stands at about 4 feet 5 inches as a 16-year-old, a common height for males his age in North Korea. His permanently stunted growth is one of the many consequences of the chronic malnutrition and starvation that ordinary North Korean citizens face year-round. The following represents a Q&A style interview I conducted with Timothy, offering a glimpse into the daily life of a North Korean teenager. For the full audio interview file, please contact me directly.
Jieun Baek (JB): Describe your childhood. What was the process of defecting like?
Timothy Lee (TL): I lived with my parents until they passed away from starvation and illness when I was 10 years-old. While living in a very under-resourced orphanage between 11-15 years old, I did a lot of labor work on government-sponsored farms. I escaped North Korea in 2011 when I was 15, and with the help of a Christian missionary, I made my way to South Korea by going through China.
JB: What did your daily and weekly schedule look like?
TL: January - April: While living in the orphanage, I would do morning exercises, eat, study a little. After lunch, I’d study some more until 3:30 PM, work, eat dinner, then sleep.
May - July: In exchange for living at the orphanage, I would do work for the orphanage. During these summer months, I moved into the countryside to pick wild roots in the mountains for about 15 hours a day. Between May-November, I would only work and have no time to study.
July-November: I picked blueberries for about 15 hours a day, all of which the government would take from us. With the exception of one month out of the year, I toiled year round doing farm work for my government without earning any money.
JB: What did you do for fun?
TL: Nothing, really. I don’t have many joyous memories from North Korea. The older orphan boys and I would steal food, which was kind of fun.
JB: What did you read for fun?
TL: There aren’t that many books in North Korea, nor libraries. Most of the books I ever read, including comic books, were about the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.
JB: What kinds of TV shows and movies did you watch?
TL: I watched a ton of propaganda videos about Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung
JB: What kind of music did you listen to?
TL: Other that North Korean pro-government music, I never heard any other songs.
JB: What kind of radio programs did you listen to?
TL: I was never able to listen to the radio. If I heard radio programs earlier, I probably would have defected sooner.
JB: What kind of games and sports did you play?
TL: Obviously, I never saw -- much less owned -- electronic games. I never saw a computer in North Korea. I did some basic physical exercises, played a little soccer, and played on metal monkey bars.
JB: What kinds of junk food did you eat?
TL: I ate mostly rice porridge with corn husks, and basic dried daikon soup.
JB: What was your favorite activity to do in North Korea?
TL: Singing pro-North Korean songs and roasting potatoes to eat with my friends at the orphanage.