Life in the Shadows

A U.S. aid worker gets a rare glimpse of the lives of North Korean refugees living illegally in China.

nk-defectors-305.jpg The author drives with a North Korean refugee in China, 2008. Photo by Han Kim.

By Han Kim

NORTHEASTERN CHINA—“You have to meet them,” a contact told me over the phone. “They’re different.”

I had been planning a visit to meet North Korean refugees in China for a while, and I had lined up a lot of meetings, so adding more would be difficult.

This family, whom I will call the Kims, lived far from where I was going to be, but I trusted my contact and arranged to drive out to see them.

Before I met the Kims last November, my contact told me they had left their nine-year-old son Moo in North Korea—the world’s last remaining Stalinist dictatorship—a year earlier.

Neither they, nor anyone else I interviewed in China, can be identified here, nor can their exact location be specified.

China routinely forces North Koreans back where they came from, where they face harsh penalties for having left.

Scores of thousands of North Koreans are believed to be living secretly in China, however, without legal protection, access to education, or medical care.

Another 16,000 have immigrated to South Korea in recent years—fleeing hunger, repression, and in some cases criminal charges at home.

As I waited at a popular restaurant in their neighborhood, I didn’t know what to expect. Then the Kims were quietly ushered by their caretakers into the private room we had set up.

Uneasy at the table

They had just learned that things were going badly back in North Korea.

An in-law was beaten severely by North Korean police who were trying to extract information on the Kims’ whereabouts.

The stress was evident on their faces as we shared a quiet lunch—mountains of Korean food, several types of kimchi, a spicy casserole boiling on a stove in the center of the table, broiled fish, and cornmeal pancakes.

They were clearly uncomfortable.

Perhaps they were thinking about their son, or troubling news from home.

Or maybe they were uneasy to find themselves sitting across the table from an American—whose country North Korean propaganda has vilified relentlessly for most of six decades. I didn’t want to ask.

Subdued as they were, I still thought the Kims were lucky compared with many North Korean refugees I had interviewed that week.

“When we first came to China, we thought China would welcome us,” Mr. Kim said. “But we soon realized that Chinese police were looking for people like us.”

The only aid they received came from U.S. Christian groups, Mr. Kim said, adding that North Korean propaganda has long attacked Christians as “the most rebellious people.”

“The Christian leaders we met provided us with a place to stay, food, and clothing, and even helped my children go to school in China,” he said.

No-man’s land

In China, North Koreans are granted no legal rights.

Once caught, they’re sent back to North Korea, where they face imprisonment, torture, and possible execution.

During my trip I met several women who were sold to Chinese men and beaten severely into giving their bodies to their “husbands.”

One woman in particular, two years after escaping her “marriage,” still had severe headaches from the trauma her husband and his family exacted on her.

The Kims were relatively lucky, but I could tell they didn’t feel lucky.

They were sullen, speaking with their heads bowed and looking at a table of food they could hardly eat.

Their teenage daughter was disengaged, playing games on a cell phone. I asked them to tell me their story.

They told me the opening of a local public market several years ago—seemingly a liberalizing measure but in fact a tacit acknowledgment that North Korea’s command economy was failing badly—had caused severe inflation in their village.

Illicit venture

A salary that had once met all their needs suddenly couldn’t put food on the table.

With two children to feed, the Kim parents decided to make an illicit move—violating for the first time the laws of a country that had allowed them to obtain higher education and lead a relatively privileged life.

Mr. Kim started an illegal business—which wouldn’t be illegal in a free country—and they stayed afloat, and fed, for a year.

But the authorities found him out.

The Kims decided to flee, and to leave their youngest child behind to make their successful escape more likely.

Educated family

My contact, as it turned out, was right.

Unlike other refugees I met that week, there was something different in the way the Kims spoke. They were educated, articulate, even eloquent.

Most of the people I had met had spent their whole lives in hardship, and they had had to lie, cheat, and steal just to stay alive.

The Kims said they had never experienced suffering until inflation hit their village.

They are haunted, they said, by the desperation they witnessed as North Korea’s economy contracted year after year—and food shortages grew dire.

Perhaps the grimmest episode Mrs. Kim remembered occurred on a frightfully cold day sometime in the last couple of years, when a man in her village started a fire to heat some drinking water in his kitchen.

His young daughter was sitting next to the fire to keep warm. Crazed from hunger, he pushed his daughter into the fire and later ate her.

His neighbors noticed the steady stream of smoke from his chimney and went to investigate, since firewood and smoke were both scarce.

They found the man asleep next to his daughter’s charred and mangled carcass.

Tales of cannibalism were common during the worst years of North Korea’s famine in the 1990s, but this episode indicates that food shortages remain dire.

Regret and worry

The Kims witnessed such suffering, but they say it never occurred to them to offer help. North Korea’s elite is taught to let the lower classes suffer, they said, because it’s their lot in life. They deeply regret this today.

I left my meeting with the family and began to worry for their son too.

The American aid organization that was helping them was working to get Moo out of North Korea, but they didn’t know when or if their plan would succeed.

Perhaps this was bothering them at lunch that day—the uncertainty.

I had given my contact information to the aid group and told them to keep me updated on the Kim family’s situation.

Months passed before I received an email saying plans were in motion to get Moo out of North Korea.

I was excited and fearful, and for a whole month I waited to hear the outcome. After a few weeks, I feared the worst, that Moo had been captured.

And then the good news came, with details of his escape that I cannot share. Moo had been reunited with his family.

The aid group found brokers to bring Moo to China over a treacherous mountainous path to the Yalu River, with only dried corn kernels to eat along the way.

Moo ultimately sprinted the last 150 meters across the icy river by himself.

He said the only thing that kept him from buckling in fear was the thought of reuniting with his mother—though it was several weeks before he could locate them in China.

The email said that, after being united with his family, Moo repeatedly pinched himself and said, “It’s true—I’m with Mom and Dad.”

He described the hardships he had endured while stranded in North Korea. He said he often hid in a storage room for fear of a beating when his uncle—who was beaten by police because of the family's escape—would drink.

Moo fared no better with his classmates.

On a cold winter day, two children threw him into an icy stream because his parents had become fugitives, and a villager had to fish him out.

North Korean children say bullying at school is rampant, with youths simply acting out what they witness in the grown-up world around them.

Uncertain future

The family remains in relative safety in China, but more tough choices remain.

Eventually they hope to take what’s known here as “the Asian underground railroad” through China to either Mongolia or Thailand, and then ultimately to South Korea.

But how will they get there? Together or separately? Through Mongolia, Thailand, or Laos? Can they seek refuge in a third-country embassy in China?

The answers could mean the difference between freedom and prison, life and death, for the whole family.

As I check my email every day, I wait, and I wonder, and I hope for good news that never comes.

Han Kim, a pseudonym, traveled to China under the auspices of a Western aid organization. He now lives in the United States. Edited and produced by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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