21 Days of Asylum

A young mother from North Korea dies of lung cancer just three weeks after settling as a refugee with her family in the United States, after a harrowing journey that highlights the plight of North Korean defectors.
2008-05-29 - RICHMOND, Virginia
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Funeral flowers for Lee Jeong-Ae, who fled North Korea via China, Laos, Burma, and Thailand to die in a "nation of laws." Photo: RFA/Jung Min Noh Photo: RFA/Jung Min Noh
The crowd that gathered this month to lay North Korean-born Lee Jeong-Ae to rest mourned more than just her death from lung cancer at age 35.

Lee died only three weeks after settling here, after a harrowing journey that highlights the shadowy no-man’s-land in which North Korean defectors live, often for decades, without access to even the most basic health care or legal protection.

Lee and her husband, who uses the pseudonym Shin to protect family still in North Korea, lived with their son in Younseon, North Hamgyong province, near the Chinese border. Shin was working in trade with China when the couple decided to flee political repression and poverty in their tightly closed homeland in mid-2006.

“I was the one who first said we should get out of North Korea. My wife was initially afraid that our family members left behind would suffer if we defected, and she also knew she would miss the hometown where she had grown up and would feel insecure,” he said.

“We didn’t know if we’d live or die, and it was obvious that we’d be in a sea of trouble if we were caught in China. My wife told me to leave first, get established in China, and then bring her and our son along as well. But I couldn’t leave them behind, so I persuaded her to leave together,” he said.

The couple took poison with them so they could commit suicide rather than risk repatriation, he said.

The family fled through China, Laos, and Burma and finally Thailand, where they remained for two years while Lee’s health worsened dramatically. In Laos, he said, “we were in much better shape” than the hundreds of thousands of North Koreans believed to be living secretly, and in perpetual fear, in China.

Grim diagnosis

“We’d known she was ill since 2006. We went to a hospital after arriving in Thailand in 2006, but never got a proper diagnosis,” Shin said of his wife. In July 2007, doctors at a second hospital diagnosed metastatic, terminal lung cancer.

In September, the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok told them their U.S. refugee status had been approved, but they would have to wait.

“People around us kept advising that we should just go to South Korea, asking: ‘Why would you want to go to America, and have a hard time?’ I just told them: ‘Even if I am to die, I will die in the United States. America is my firm and final choice, and please do not even bring up any other country.’”

“We had no good news, and she began to suffer psychologically, and her overall condition worsened…She was so anxious to come to the United States, and she said: ‘If we go to America, I know there’s hope for a cure.’ Even I said to myself: ‘If we make it to America, they’ll be able to treat her cancer.’ We hoped for a miracle, but this terrible illness is merciless.”

Alone in a Thai hospital

Lee remained alone in a Thai hospital, too, for three months when Shin was detained by Thai police as he gave directions to a group of North Korean defectors. 

“My wife was alone. She had nobody to cook for her or look after her, she could barely eat Thai food…and she had nobody to translate for her at the hospital. Her condition degraded dramatically.”

Finally, in February 2008, 16 North Korean defectors were cleared to leave Thailand for the United States—with one spot allocated for the Shin family. But U.S. law requires that refugee families stay together, so the spot went to a single North Korean.

“I still think that, should my wife had been given that spot and allowed to come to the United States before me and our son, she might have had a chance to live. When we arrived in America, the doctors told her that she had only a couple of weeks left.”

“My wife said, ‘I want to die in America… Freedom, that’s what I want. There is no other reason. I choose the United States because it is a nation of laws that fully safeguards human rights and freedom.’ And, since science and technology are so advanced in America, she also thought that their might be hope for a cure as well.”

Asylum at last

The family finally reached New York City on April 14 and settled in Richmond three days later. Lee died of metastatic lung cancer on May 7.

Yoo Shin-Hye, a nurse at the Medical College of Virginia Hospital who looked after Lee at the end of her illness, said Lee worried most about leaving her son. The doctors who treated her cried when they learned she had died.

“She fought hard and clung on to life. ‘I’ve been through so much hardship to get here… I can’t just disappear into the night without knowing this life. I can’t just leave my little son behind,’” Yoo said.

At her memorial service at the Emmaus Korean United Methodist Church, mourners sat quietly before her photograph. Her husband couldn’t be consoled.

Under a law passed under the Bush administration, 53 North Korean refugees have now been admitted to the United States as refugees.

Original reporting by Jung Min Noh for RFA’s Korean service. Edited by Sooil Chun. Korean service director: Kwang-Chool Lee. Translated by GrigoreScarlatoiu. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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