Sisters Fear for Defectors

Sent back to North Korea from China four times, the Cho sisters finally won resettlement as U.S. refugees. Now they're planning for the future but still worrying about those they left behind.
2008-05-21 - WASHINGTON
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Two young North Korean women resettled in the United States after a dangerous decade as refugees in China say they’ve found peace here but fear for the many other North Korean defectors who write to them from China.

Cho Jin-Hye, 21, and Cho Eun-Hye, 16, settled earlier this year in Seattle, Washington, and visited Washington, D.C. April 26-May 3 to take part in North Korea Freedom Week.

The Cho sisters lived clandestinely in China for 10 years, during which they were forcibly repatriated four times. Under a new U.S. law, 53 North Korean refugees have now been admitted to the United States as refugees—including the Cho sisters and their mother.

“I never felt at peace in China.  If somebody looked at us, we thought it was because we seemed strange, and so we lived on and on, in perpetual tension,” Cho Eun-Hye said. “In America, all that tension is gone, I have found peace, and I am deeply thankful to all the people who surround us with their friendship and warmth."

Her sister, Cho Jin-Hye, agreed. “Words can hardly express how happy and comfortable I feel. I had always lived in tension, but now that I’m here, there is nothing to be tense about, and I’m so relaxed,” she said.

“I lived in tremendous fear, I was afraid my life would be threatened if I talked to the press or had my picture taken, I always feared for my life, and even worried that Kim Jong Il might send his spies to kill me,” Cho Jin-Hye said, referring to the secretive North Korean leader.

Future plans, friends left behind

Once they arrived in Seattle, the women began studying English at a community college and plan to attend divinity school. Already native speakers of Korean and Chinese, they say they want to work as translators.

Cho Jin-Hye said she keeps in touch with some 80 North Korean defectors who are still in China. They ask her to rescue them, she says.

“We are of the same blood, we all suffered together in North Korea, and I think it is only natural for me to help other North Korean defectors and for them to expect my help,” she said.

“In North Korea we were always told that Americans were evil thugs, and now I feel deeply moved to know that so many people in America truly care about us and do their best to help us,” Cho Jin-Hye said.

A Korean-American minister active in North Korea since 1994, Phillip Buck, helped the girls and their mother obtain refugee protection from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Beijing and asylum in the United States.

Buck said nine other North Koreans have obtained the same protection in Beijing and will soon immigrate to the United States as well.

Original reporting by Wonhee Lee for RFA’s Korean service. Edited by Sooil Chun. Korean service director: Kwang-Chool Lee. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. 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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