We enter the small men’s hair salon, and a middle-aged woman with her hair neatly piled up greets us. I give her my humble plate of American Christmas cookies. At first, she doesn’t seem to know what they are until my husband explains again—Merry Christmas.
All smiles, she shares with two other men and another who walks in. “Delicious,” she says in Korean munching on a cookie and half a banana chocolate chip muffin.
After a bit of small talk, we show her a photo of the cover of my book Rice from Heaven. She’s in awe that I participated in this, but she immediately starts talking about how North Koreans have to report if they find anything like this; otherwise, they get watched. So I contemplate if maybe this wasn’t so good, sending balloons over. But the refugees who funded this must know.
This leads to us asking more about her past. She escaped 14 years ago (2004) with a group of twelve, including her teenaged son and a broker leading them. It was winter time, and they covered themselves with some kind of white sheet to not be seen by soldiers. They crossed the river, water up to her chest. But when they got to China, a new broker awaited. When she discovered they would be exploited, she fled. In retaliation, the broker sent her son back to North Korea where he spent time in a concentration camp. He had so little to eat, only kernels of corn. They had to pick cabbages out of a field. They would hide cabbages in the crux of their shirt and nibble on it like rabbits.
She laughs at the image and sound of a rabbit eating. But then her laughter turns to tears as she tells us her son got so cold and lost two toes from hypothermia. Eventually they released him due to his medical condition. After making her way to South Korea via the Asian Underground Railroad, she tried to send him money a couple times, but each time it was confiscated. Of course, he is being watched. So to prevent further complications, she quit communicating with him. It’s been ten years. She misses him. As she weeps, I can feel her ache. She also has a daughter and husband that she left. She grabs my cookies and munches away her stress.
The news shows Korean President Moon Jae In and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. She frowns and lays into the Korean president. “It’s all for show,” she says. As I flip through a women’s magazine, there’s another photo of the two together. I close it. I don’t dare ask what she thinks of Kim Jong Un visiting Seoul, another hot topic in the news.
I feel guilty for prying into her past for an interview. I silently pray that she will be reunited with her loved ones. For now, she seems to be doing well, having just opened her second hair salon in Pyeongtaek. (She used to cut hair in North Korea.)
I walk away with a heavy heart. Sad for her but feeling deeply blessed to have my son at home with me, well and alive, along with my daughter and husband. I ask for her business card. I know it’s not her real name. She shows us her real name on her Korean I.D. The last names at least match. I will pray for Mrs. Sohng.
As I tuck my son in bed, pray and kiss him goodnight, my eyes tear over as I think of Mrs. Sohng and all the women who long for a missed child.
May God reunite families. Tell your children you love them. Who knows when the last time is? ♥