The Fate of the Repatriated North Korean Women
North Korean Defector Repatriation Memoir
The Chilsung Customs where I worked was the North Korean/Chinese border customs, located in North Hamkyung’s Musan County. It is the first barrier that seeks to prevent liberalism from coming into North Korea. Musan County is famous for North Korea’s biggest iron ore mining production and also well-known for the people who are banished for their inferior birth origin. The place is far away from Pyongyang and the lands are barren, useful for nothing but the ore mining and thereby not inhabitable.
According to the North Korean regime, that was the reason why the “hostile class” was exiled to that place. However, the region suddenly started to transform into a livable place from the late 80s to early 90s. It was the result of the influence from the waves of Chinese reformation reaching to the borders. The Chinese merchants of Korean descendents have begun to sell in the unprotected region from the early 90s. Since then, the number of smugglers and North Korean defectors started to increase.
As for me, I graduated from a university in Pyongyang and worked in my hometown and soon after transferred to a job at Chilsung Customs. Such luck was due to my connections with an agency. The Customs is a place where much good stuff can be obtained, and thus the work position was nicknamed as “the golden egg job” that gives considerable profit. North Korean Customs are managed by the National Security Agency. Anyone who works in the Customs, even of the laborers, can go outside and exercise their power in the name of the Agency.
When I was placed in Chilsung Customs towards the end of 1997, it was during North Korea’s worst famine crisis and many people starved to death. There I worked in the area of business finances and administrative affairs. At the time so many people have been crossing the border to escape to China, that dealing with the North Korean defectors became the Customs’ top priority. Of the 13 Customs workers, 8-9 were agents and the rest mere laborers.
My duties included unpleasant roles of bodily inspections of North Korean defectors and thorough inspections of incoming Chinese people’s personal belongings. We indulged in the privilege of using expensive, foreign beauty products and watching confiscated South Korean TV dramas, and such practice could never even be conceived by local citizens. However, I absolutely hated dealing with North Korean female defectors who were captured back.
It was the spring of 1998. Every week, ten or more North Korean defectors were forced back into the country through our Customs. Among them, half were women. As a female myself, I had the duty to inspect the women, but since I was being watched I sometimes had to be brutal to them. However, no matter how much sins they’ve committed, treating these women inhumanely as if they were animals often led me to disbelieve of my own brutality; I felt ashamed and often wondered why I must do this kind of work.
One day, as usual, another group of North Korean defectors who crossed the border bridge were caught and brought to the Customs. That week, two batches of defectors were brought in. Since I’ve dealt with so many North Korean women who defected, I could easily guess what these women have been doing in China. Even so, there was this one woman who caught my attention with a significant beauty. Her eyes had double eye lids, her nose pointy, and her stature tall and skinny.
Her wrists were bleeding with the tightly bound handcuffs. At once I felt pity for the woman as I predicted the kind of humiliation she would be facing. There was this Agent Advisor named Jinho, who was particularly cruel to women, and he approached this beautiful looking woman. He snared, “You pretty bitch must have brought in a lot of income.” He called out the names from the list sent by the Chinese border patrol officer. Her name was Kim Eun-jeong, 29 years old, born in Cheongjin, the same age and birthplace as me.
To prevent escape, they were dragged by a pair, as the two captured were shackled together. I hopped into the jeep and followed these women. “Kim Eun-hae, I’m gonna have to thank you again for doing this,” said an agent, somewhat pleading to me. I was sick and tired of taking off these women’s clothes for inspection. How awful these women must have felt to have to strip before my eyes. They say most North Korean defectors become absent minded when they see the North Korean flag. My home-town folk Kim Eun-jeong came into the inspection room, naked.
Following the rules, I had her put her arms behind her, spread her legs apart, and have her sit and stand repeatedly in that position. There are many occasions where female defectors try to hide the hard-won dollars (for which they risked their lives) by swallowing them or hiding them in their anuses. The purpose of the exercise was to find them out. There were far more humiliating and filthy ways of inspections, but they are so grotesque that I cannot reveal all of them. As an inspector, I didn’t feel like I was a human, nor Kim Eun-jung, who was being inspected. From her eyes flowed bloody tears from humiliation, and I had hard time bearing with it.
After the inspection, the confiscated dollars and personal belongings were handed over to Jinho the Advisor. All items go through the Advisor and are returned to the government, but we would never know how much is actually given to the government, for these agents were starved of dollars. While being watched by an agent, I led those women to Insolhae County hospital. They were to be examined of pregnancy, STDs, and any sorts of infection. Pregnant women get punished in a way that is unimaginably repugnant.
The pregnant women are more brutally treated for the reason of having conceived a Chinese baby. Food was given before the medical examination, but it was merely a salt soup with a few pieces of floating, browned rice. I asked Eun-jeong for the first time, “Where in China did you stay?” She replied, “Yanji.” Wiping her dripping sweat, Eun-jeong was barely able to reply. Those women went in to the gynecologist one by one, going through the blood and urinal tests.
To prevent possible escape, each woman was under watch by one personnel. Then suddenly Eun-jeong came and knelt before me. “What are you doing?” I asked, and helped her get up. She nearly begged, saying, “Unni, I will never forget your kindness; please let me take your urine, oh please…” She was the same age as me, yet she called me “Unni” (an informal term respecting an older woman; also has the meaning: “older sister”). Then I noticed that her stomach was a bit protruded. As a woman myself, my heart began to ache, and I wanted to protect her.
She seemed to love the father of the baby. Nothing happened that day. However, the blood test and other examinations gave away her pregnancy later on. When one day I came to the Agency to transfer another group of caught-defectors, I nearly fainted from shock when I saw an unbelievable sight. In front of the Agency there was Eun-jeong, holding in each hand a water container that each weighed 15kg, running. They were forcing her to abort the child using such method. The baby’s life seemed resilient, because when she finally collapsed after running for about 30 minutes, she didn’t have any blood discharge. The newly arrived women were forced to stand near me, as if to let them know what would happen if they get pregnant. Since the first punishment didn’t work, Eun-jeong was then forced to squat and waddle-gait, with her hands holding her ears. Endless tears flowed down from her eyes.
Then Agent Jinho yelled, “Whether you conceive a Chinese wretch or a South Korean wretch, if it’s not of our own [North Korean] blood, everyone will go through this. After you’re released from here, I don’t care if you escape to China again. Bitches, if you’re going to sell your body, do it properly and don’t bring in dirty bloods…” Eun-jeong finally began to bleed. She barely held the blood flow using the cloth she tore from her own clothes. I felt so sorry for her that I went to a store and bought her Chinese-brand pads.
We were the same age with the same birthplace, and though her situation was different from mine, I simply could not be indifferent. Eun-jeong’s case could be considered better than some other cases. Pregnant women who are caught in their late term are initially allowed to give birth, but the babies are wrapped in plastic bags to die of suffocation, all in plain sight of their mothers. Could there be words that can possibly describe the condition of the mother’s heart as she watches her own child get killed? Even animals would not be as cruel. Regardless of who, every single baby conceived by North Korean woman in China was to be killed.
In all ages and countries, could there be any nation in the world such as this? If people escaped from North Korea because the country could not solve the hunger problem, it owes its people much concern and protection. Instead, it punishes the people with such wicked cruelty that even the sky seems heartless. Where is justice in that? I was fed up with all this shameful customs job; I quit and defected from North Korea. Due to my position at the border, I had connections with the Chinese residents of Korean descent and thereby had much easier time escaping than others.
I shivered several times a day at the thought that if I get caught, I will be cruelly treated just as Eun-jeong had been. Fortunately, I never got caught and was spared such humiliation which, if caught, all female defectors went through. It is most grievous and painful to know that a considerable number of North Korean women are daily arrested in China and forced back to North Korea. It is my wish that the South Korean government and the international community would give more effort and attention to prevent this cruel violation of human dignity that results from repatriations of helpless North Korean defectors.
Translated by Christal S. Yim