WASHINGTON—A 21-year-old woman, who this month became one of the first six North Koreans granted U.S. asylum, has said she was sold repeatedly into marriage in China and jailed in North Korea before successfully seeking refuge in a U.S. embassy in Asia.
Chanmi, along with five other North Koreans, arrived in the United States on May 5. She agreed to an interview with RFA’s Korean service on condition that none of them be identified in any way that could prompt retaliation against their families in North Korea. Chanmi is a pseudonym given to her by Rev. Chun Ki-Won, a South Korean national who helps North Koreans to escape their native country. The six are the first North Koreans to be resettled in the United States as refugees.
“I’ve been to Korean supermarkets here [in the United States], and I was surprised to find so many kinds of goods that I haven’t seen even in China. The most delicious food I had while staying here was hamburger,” Chanmi said in an interview recorded May 18 and broadcast May 19. “But I think I am getting fatter these days eating too much hamburger. Wherever I go here, I’m treated to lots of good food, which makes me think about my mom in North Korea as well as our defectors in China.”
Chanmi said she first fled North Korea in September 2001, crossing the Chinese border to visit relatives and obtain food. “When I returned, I missed those good days in China, so I fled again to China. I stayed in the city of Qingdao in Shandong province about one year,” she said.
“Then in 2002, I missed my mom in North Korea so much, so I returned to her. But I soon felt so cold and hungry back in North Korea that I had to leave again for China,” she said, adding that Chinese police apprehended her en route to Qingdao and returned her to North Korea, where she spent 40 days in jail.
When I was in North Korea, I couldn’t know what was happening in the outside world. They had our television set glued to only one official channel, and we could not move around freely there,
“I was freed in December 2002 and fled to China again, but this time I was sold off by Korean-Chinese brokers several times to Chinese men. I was sold at the price of 20,000 yuan,” she said. “So many North Korean women are sold like this in so many areas in China even these days.”
“Then, in October 2003, the third eldest of my brothers came to save me, and we went together to Qingdao. He and I were caught by Chinese police in February 2004 while trying to escape to South Korea. After a trial in North Korea, my brother was confined to a political prison with no hope of being freed, and I was sentenced to three years. After serving 19 months in prison, I was freed, with my body bruised due to kicking and beating by prison guards.”
“While in prison, I witnessed some harrowing scenes. I saw three to five bodies being carried outside prisons every day, and the guards buried them with shovels under ground by breaking their necks and joints first. They died of hunger and malnutrition, I thought.”
Ultimately, Chanmi escaped again and sought refuge in a U.S. embassy in Southeast Asia. She and the others in her group have declined to identify the country to protect it from Chinese retaliation. Deciding to come to the United States was “agonizing,” she said.
“When asked whether to go to the United States or South Korea, I was in agony. Back in North Korea, they taught me that South Korea was a bad country with a puppet regime, and the United States was a wolf-like country. I was in agony for several days…Finally, I made up my mind to go to the United States. While watching television or [listening to] radio broadcasts, I found out later Americans are polite and good. I feel now I have made the right decision.”
“When I was in North Korea, I couldn’t know what was happening in the outside world. They had our television set glued to only one official channel, and we could not move around freely there.”
In China, she said, she heard talk of Washington accepting North Korean refugees. “I just hope poor North Koreans as well as North Korean defectors suffering in China can get refugee status and be accepted in the United States, which would be our biggest happiness…I also hope those poor souls dying in the prison camps in North Korea could be saved as soon as possible,” she said.
“I have one dream in this country, though I’m not sure whether it can come true or not. My dream is to build a school for poor orphans like myself in the future. To make my dream come true, I would like to learn English hard, computer skills and piano.”
“While staying in Qingdao, I went to church. I came to know about God and Bible through my eldest brother who traveled a lot to China. He told something about God to me and Mom. Until then, I was so scared even to hear about ‘God.’ In North Korea, even uttering one word about God will send you to prison.”
The group was the first to arrive since U.S. President George Bush signed the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004, a law aimed at making it easier for North Koreans to apply for U.S. refugee status. North Korea is widely accused of torture, public executions, and other abuses. Between 150,000 and 200,000 people are believed to be held in its prison camps for political reasons, according to the State Department. Tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are believed to be hiding in China.