The misfortune of being a woman in North Korea
For who is the slogan “Only between our own kind”
Last April 28th I went to the front of the Chinese embassy in Jongno, Seoul in order to attend a rally to stop the forceful repatriation of North Korean refugees. The Chinese government has called the defectors in China illegal aliens and it intends to force them to return to North Korea. Our rally was held to oppose this action and was widely attended by Korean Christian groups and international human rights organizations.
According to an American Non-governmental Organization advocating refugee and immigration rights, in one year China repatriates as many as 5000 North Korean defectors. From the very beginning of North Korea’s history it had become a subject of discussion in China whether North Korean defectors should be seen as refugees or illegal trespassers.
Up to this point, China has been forcefully repatriating North Korean refugees under the auspices of the criminal extradition treaty. Hungry people who cross the border are treated as criminals. In the mid 90’s when the famine began over 300,000 defectors crossed into China. Currently, as a result of China’s forceful repatriation policy, the number has dropped to somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people.
A long time ago one Chinese press report announced that in July 1978 Chinese-North Korean public security authorities signed a treaty called the ‘Maintaining Border Region Security and Social Order Collaborative Agreement.’ Through this they agreed to provide a list of people who have crossed the border, including photos, when secret border incursions occurred.
Following the treaty, China immediately handed over North Korean defectors whenever they were caught. Because there were no incidents of Chinese people fleeing toward North Korea, North Korea did not have to fulfill their side of this agreement. However, the great Chinese nation obediently continues to follow the demands of North Korea on this issue.
If North Korean defectors are caught in China, they are shackled and led away like dogs under armed police escort. If a Chinese person does happen to be caught in North Korea, not only are they not chained in this way, they are very well treated by the North Korean guards. North Korean defectors are also North Korean’s, but they are treated in an extremely repulsive manner by their government. Where in the world are there people who would capture, torture and kill those of the same race in this way?
The authorities in North Korea conduct policy under the empty slogan “only between our own people,” but who does this slogan serve? It is ultimately a policy based solely on maintaining power for the elite class, rather than working for the people. This is a policy that says those of our ethnicity who go abroad and live in wealth do not benefit our race.
The Chinese Diplomatic Service continues the forceful repatriation of North Koreans, claiming every time they receive a refugee that, “our policy of returning North Koreans who have entered our country in secret is in line with domestic law, international law and humanitarian thinking and it will not be changed.”
Up to this point, defectors seeking foreign asylum and becoming foreign residents in countries like South Korea, and America, as they request, are a drop of water in a bucket compared to the defectors repatriated to North Korea. China only deports to these other third-party countries the defectors who become a big issue when they are heard about by the rest of the world. The rest the vast majority they forcefully send back to North Korea.
The land of the insane, the hometown for which I have cast away all emotion
I too have twice experienced being forced back into North Korea after defecting. The “mother country” I left out of hunger had already branded me a traitor and China scorned me as a criminal.
I had no other place to go but South Korea. South Korea treated me with a kind of philanthropic love and granted me citizenship. They even provided me with financial assistance so that I could resettle here. South Koreans saw me as one of them and I have never wanted to return to the land where I was viewed as a criminal again.
When I first left North Korea, I still felt a little bit guilty about leaving my country behind. However upon being captured the first time and leaving as a defector the second time, I threw away all feeling and lingering affection for my country. North Korea is not a country with people who think as I do. It is filled only with insanity.
My hometown was in a province called Hamgyeong. Around the mid-90’s during the time of the famine, more than one of every ten women in our village went to China in order to survive. They were also people who awakened from the mental slumber our society had forced us into. By 1996 those who would die of starvation had all passed away. Those like me who had woken up to the reality of our society had gone out to the border town of Hyaesan and, like me, defected from North Korea.
After having been repatriated for the second time, while I left North Korea yet again visions of rice and meat and freedom swam through my head, tempting me along. Before I left I tried desperately to erase these thoughts and make a new start in North Korea, but even in my sleep they came to me in a way I couldn’t resist.
So I escaped that place yet again and went to the end of hell and back to ultimately become a citizen of South Korea. Freedom is an incredibly precious thing. If I hadn’t spent seven years making it to and living in secret in China and then finally turning to South Korea to find liberty I would still be living in that dark wasteland without memory or purpose until I died.
I think people who have received high school education should be intelligent enough to understand what is happening in their country. Though my trials were very difficult, they should not hesitate to have enough bravery to embark on this kind of adventure. There is still a woman in China who was so helpful to me that can take care of them too.
First defection: Crossing the frozen Amnok River
I was discharged from my work as a nurse in a hospital for railway workers in Hamgyeong province in 1996. Without even sufficient medicine, it was a hospital in name only and didn’t even have enough electricity to perform surgery. Even the doctors were forced to stop working and enter the market to sell noodles and medicine.
I experienced much anguish while unemployed. Eventually I left for a border town next to China called Hyaesan, determined to bring medicine to my hometown and sell it. I listened to Chinese people who said they would give me medicine on credit at first. The public safety service in China made it illegal for Chinese people to sell medicine on the market, so I had to cross a small river at night in order to go where I wanted to get the medicine.
I was accompanied by three other coworkers, and we didn’t know the river we were crossing was the Amnok River (demarcating the border with China). The moment we tried to have a conversation with other people crossing the river and heard them speaking Chinese, we knew that we had entered China.
We went until a tiny border village, where we learned that agents hired by the North Korean police were living there. If we were exposed by someone we would be deported. The Chinese man we had talked to about the medicine said he would bring the medicine at daybreak so we decided to rest there and go back to North Korea the next night.
But finally having arrived in China, we were able to eat rice and meat in a way we had longed for in our dreams. I said to my companions, “We’ve already come this far, let’s go further into China and make a little money, then go back.”
Yet we knew nothing of China and set off without any plan. From that border village called Changbaek we went all the way to Yanji and Kirin, which was very far from home. People who had no identification, like us, couldn’t ride a bus or car so we had to take a wagon pulled by a bicycle the whole way.
We set out in the evening. In the winter in Changbaek Mountain the temperature drops lower than minus 20 degrees Celsius. At night, in order to avoid being attacked by wild animals we hid in the long weeds and covered ourselves with snow before we fell asleep.
Luckily one other travelling companion and I survived that experience. We took a path through Changbaek Mountain into the inner-part of China. Even walking the whole day through the mountain it was hard to spot a single home or any people at all. The only thing that saved us in this time was a forest conservation group in the Changbai Mountains. These people gave us starving women, who could barely maintain ourselves due to hunger, some food supplies to keep us going. This saved our life.
It was so far I don’t even know how much we walked. After a few days we made it to a small village. From there to the border it was less than one hundred kilometers as the crow flies. However, if you follow the road, and considering we were obstructed by a huge mountain range it was more like 300 kilometers.
This place was unique to the Changbaek Mountain region in that it was a coal producing area. There were huge piles of dirt and coal and mine pits scattered about the land. Where there was a coal mine, there was bound to be a small village nearby. Throughout each region in the country miners from other areas mixed with natives to the region and lived side-by-side. My frostbitten friend and I decided to stop in one of these coal-mining villages to get a job and make some money. I quickly married with a Chinese man and settled down there.
In the north-eastern region around Changbaek there were a lot of North Korean women subsisting as illegal immigrants. They were all women who left their wretchedly poor home country and their hometowns. The Chinese in our village called us the “North Korean ladies.”
Second defection: buying off a North Korean soldier for 10 Yuan.
My first husband was a coalminer. The wedding was performed by a very old ethnic Korean woman at a Korean-style Christian church. This woman appealed to the villagers for us, saying, “These poor girls have had much misfortune. We should do whatever we can to help them.”
When we first arrived she told me, “Since a few years ago many Korean women have crossed over seeking food. Our circumstances aren’t so good either, so there’s only so much we can do. We usually give them a little money to help them along and slip a little dried food into their pockets, urging them to go further inward. Sometimes we help them get married.”
My first husband was addicted to gambling. As soon as he woke up he gambled. Our home was extremely poor because my husband threw away all our money. Thinking there was no way my life could improve in this situation, I left him after just one year. I went to another village called Imsan with the surviving friend I had come with and we stayed there for awhile.
In the Spring of 1999 I used a little money I had saved up before I left the coalminer to start a business selling Korean groceries (side-dishes). In Imsan there were a lot of ethnic Koreans. I was able to scrape by and make a few earnings based solely on the interest of the local Koreans in my business. My intention was to collect the money and send it to my family back in North Korea.
In North Korea I had a husband who worked in a car factory and a son who was nine years old. After I left home I couldn’t see my boy again. The most I heard about him was some basic information from a person I knew after I was sent back to North Korea the second time.
Selling Korean groceries didn’t give me a stable income for a very long time. After a year my coalminer husband somehow found out about me and came demanding the money I had collected. He wanted to use it for his gambling. Because I refused his demands, that man who couldn’t even earn his own money reported me to the Changbai Mountain border police.
The border authorities quickly arrested me and held me in detention at the Kirin frontier city at first. There was a special prison specifically for imprisoning Koreans in that area. After a few days I was sent back to the North against my will. Before I left the detention center I rolled up five 10 Yuan bills, wrapped them in vinyl and swallowed. In this way I could safely take some money with me as I left the prison.
During my three days in a North Korean prison after being deported I had my identification checked, my hometown confirmed and the prison informed my former hospital’s management staff of my situation. My interrogators questioned me once a day. They threw the same questions at me every time. Mainly they asked me about what I was doing in China. The interrogators told me that according to North Korean law, first-time defectors go to labour camps for one year. They said second-timers go for three years and third-timers face five-year’s encampment.
Through my interrogators I learned my husband died in a car accident transporting goods to Russia. They also told me my boy was living with his grandmother. After facing interrogation for several days I was loaded onto a large vehicle with other captured prisoners and sent away.
My companions in the vehicle were all caught attempting to escape North Korea, like me. They had also been sentenced for that so-called crime, like me. They were all dragged away to a labour farm in the northern regions. I had already defecated and taken with me the money I had swallowed in China. To avoid the fate of my companions in the vehicle, I took one of the bills and gave it to the guard holding a gun beside me.
I got out of the moving car and fled. If I went forward there would have been houses eventually, but there wouldn’t have been any food. After the man I had given the money sent the car away, I turned around and started out for Amnok River the place where I had first crossed into China.
Going to work at a chicken farm in Heilong Jiang
In 1999 I crossed the border and entered China for the second time. Because I had already experienced defecting, the second time went a lot more smoothly. This time I went toward the area in Kirin known as the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, where a lot of ethnic Koreans lived. In that region if you keep going west along the railway you’ll come upon a densely populated area. The key is to go to where there are a lot of people if you end up in a small village it’s very hard to find people who can spare food.
Since I had previously lived two years in the northeastern part of China I had become familiar with the customs and relatively used to the language. Of course, I could already have conversations with the ethnic Koreans living there. When I went further west nobody suspected I had come from North Korea.
As soon as I came to China this time I penciled my eyebrows, which is the fashion among women in the country. I followed the advice of those who said I should adapt to Chinese fashion in order to hide my true identity.
I didn’t reenter Imsan, the village where I had stayed before, because there were too many people who knew I was North Korean. Safety was my biggest concern. First, I called the same old woman who had helped me get married before. She pointed me toward Harbin, where I got a job working at a chicken farm.
I went straight to Harbin, which is located in Heilongjiang province, begging for food along the way. The owner of the chicken farm was an uncommonly kind person. He fed me, provided lodging and paid me 500 Yuan per month (around 65,000 South Korean won roughly $6). He was the second most important person I had met in China, next to the old woman who had helped me so much.
I worked at the chicken farm in Harbin until 2001. I had no worries about eating sufficiently, but I began to think a lot about my boy in North Korea. I obtained an identification card that legitimated my family background as Chinese. The owner still hadn’t exposed my identity in public.
A month after I obtained my Chinese identification card, a driver who transported products from the chicken farm reported me to a border patrol unit and I was immediately deported back to North Korea again. Once again I forced myself to swallow 250 Yuan wrapped in vinyl before I was taken away.
Erasing my family ties, giving up my connection to my husband and son
A North Korean court demanded I be sentenced to three years penal servitude in a labour camp. They told me they had erased all registered connections with my family and my hometown.
While imprisoned in the Jeungsang Rehabilitation Center I was forced to lay pavement for new roads. The people convicted of crimes there were mostly people like me who tried to defect from the country, and many others were people who were in such dire straits that they made mistakes or needed to commit economic crimes to survive.
Everyday people died of hunger, and some people were beaten to death by police. We shed tears while we dug huge holes in the very spot we were working to bury the dead. But people died again and again. Prisoners became experts at digging human graves in the labour camp.
After I was taken to prison my family worked from the outside to get me released. My father was still young enough and was a former judge himself, so he had many connections. I slipped the 250 Yuan I had smuggled into prison to friends who were finishing their prison terms and they gave the money to my father. He used it to bribe officials into securing my release. I was discharged in October 2002.
After returning to my parents’ side upon release I was forced to pledge to security agents not to go to another region or to seek out my husband or son. These agents informed me that I had already given up ties to my family through my criminality. I had no registered history so I couldn’t find a place to work or receive rations from the government.
Father: “I can’t take care of you any longer”
My father was 72. It had been a long time since he retired from being a judge and maintaining his family with government handouts alone was completely impossible. Of course he heard a lot of criticism about his daughter being a traitor to the Korean race, but even worse was the fact that I was completely unable to support him and my mother. I wasn’t even allowed to look for a job, so the very idea of supporting them was preposterous. I was ashamed of living off my parents despite my age.
I went to the hospital where I had originally worked and begged to be reinstated, but they said they could not receive people who had tried to escape to China. More still, the security agency had released me under the excuse that I was sick, so they said I couldn’t go around looking for work and had to stay at home to be treated. The security agent in charge of monitoring me kept a close watch to make sure I didn’t leave the house.
He frequented our home and between the time that he came and went my chest filled with nearly unbearable panic.
If there was even a sign that I had left the house I would be sent back to prison. I felt so sorry toward my parents that I simply couldn’t be with them any longer. I was in a position where, since I had been in and out of prison, I would not be able to get a husband who could provide for us.
I realized that since I couldn’t fulfill my duty to take care of my parents, I would be better off either dying or once again setting out for China. I had no reason to stay with them as a normal daughter would, and I wanted to provide money for my parents to see them through their old age. My parents did farm work then and with every passing day their crop yields grew smaller. My mother grew increasingly distressed. We didn’t have enough food to eat and couldn’t wait until the next spring’s growth.
In order to prepare for my next flight to China, I started to collect some money. I meticulously gathered the things I would need for the journey and sold anything that was worth selling. I gathered this and that to sell off and rarely ate to the point that I eked out 2000 Won.
By February of 2003, though the Amnok River still hadn’t fully melted, my mind started to race with anticipation. Rather than starving to death at home, I thought I would be better off taking that dangerous journey once again. If I wanted to go from my home to Hyesan the quickest route would have been by train. But since I didn’t have a travel certificate, I couldn’t buy a train ticket.
I decided to go the train station I knew from working at the railway hospital and asked for a favour from the train operator. I slipped him 1000 won and he said he would drive me up to Hyesan. He didn’t know I had already been caught in China and sent back. Had he known I was intending to go to China this time, he might not have driven me up. Finally, on February 20th he took me to the Hyesan border region.
Third defection: paying off soldiers for 300 Won
When I arrived at the border the security was so heavy that I couldn’t even think of crossing the river to China. I stayed in Hyesan and walked the streets day by day waiting for my chance.
At last, when I was walking through the market in Hyesan one day, three Chinese merchants carrying cell phones showed up. I stood in front of them to get their attention and said, “Let me make a call to Harbin. I have something I need to pass on to a relative there.” The three tilted their heads in surprise at my fluent Chinese ability and pulled out their phones to give to me.
Before I was deported from Harbin I memorized the chicken farm owner’s cell phone number. The sound of his voice was most welcome. I couldn’t contain my happiness. “I got out of prison. I’m in Hyesan right now, but I need some money if I want to get over to China. Please help me.”
He said, “I’ll be there as soon as possible. Wait for me. Just tell me your location.” After only two days he was able to go through all the formalities, and came over to Hyesan. He gave 200 Yuan to the managing officer of the border guards and 100 Yuan to the soldier in charge of sentry duty. This was how I got permission to leave North Korea for the third time.
This time too I went to find the Korean church where I had received help long ago. The deacon was so pleased to see me and said, “I think I’ve found the perfect match to keep you safe this time.” In April, 2003 I was married to a Chinese man for the second time. Of course, he was a miner. Just like the gambler, he didn’t exactly sweep me off my feet, but fate can be cruel: I had had no real choice in the matter.
This one was always drunk. He always cursed me for being a Korean who ran away from home. I wanted to leave him, but before I could do that I had to wait awhile.
For freedom, I chose South Korea
Time flowed by and it eventually became winter 2005. The deacon of the church brought a South Korean missionary to me. The deacon, who pitied my lack of normalcy in China said, “If you go to South Korea you’ll be able to get citizenship…” My ears perked up at the prospect.
I had been deprived of citizenship and sent to prison by my home country. I had crossed the Amnok River only to live in China without rights and in hiding. I didn’t have any worries about having enough food to eat, but to me rights were more important. I grabbed the hands of the deacon and the missionary and begged them, “Please, take me to South Korea.” The missionary led me to a place in Yongil, and I departed China for a third country with other North Korean defectors planning to go to South Korea.
In the third country I waited for a few months until I boarded a plane destined for South Korea. The airplane shot through the clouds as it took off to the top of the sky. As I looked at the clouds pinned down below the airplane tears welled in my eyes. After flying so high in the sky and touching down again at the very floor of the Earth, I felt as if my life had been renewed. The last seven years seemed to have flowed past like scenes in a film. I slowly turned my head north. I felt two emotions in that time: a joy like I was on top of the world, and a deep sorrow for my parents.
I thought much of my parents, my son and husband who were so far away. I wanted to earn money quickly to help my parents and bring my child to South Korea.
If you watch the news you can see a lot of North Koreans who can’t adapt to the South and end up travelling to America. But for me, as long as I have freedom and rights, there is nothing to be afraid of. Having attained the same rights as others, compared to the suffering I experienced in China there are no difficulties here.
In northeast China where I lived, women who have defected from North Korea are common. According to unofficial statistics from the government they amount to tens of thousands of women. If these women are forcefully repatriated to North Korea, not only will it affect the women, but also their children remaining in China.
I strongly demand the Chinese authorities grant these people refugee status. In this way we may protect my brothers and sisters from experiencing the kind of bone-deep pain I experienced in my past.
Han Myeong Ok/ Entrance to South Korea 2006
Translated by Stuart Smallwood