North Korean Defector Lost Entire Family


2003-09-04
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Famine, escape attempts carried off wife, two sons

Listen to the original broadcast in Korean

A North Korean defector now based in Seoul has spoken to RFA's Korean service about losing his only surviving son, who died while trying to escape to the South, and of the famine that claimed his wife and second son.

"I talked with him on the phone [before he began the journey from China to South Korea]," Yoo Sang-joon told RFA. "He said only, 'I miss you, Daddy.' Then he said 'How are you, Daddy?', which was the last thing I heard from him."

Yoon also has bitter memories of the last time he saw his son, Chul-min.

"When it was time for us to be separated, my son continued to shed tears, but he didn't cry. It would have made me feel better if he cried hard though. I still remember him shedding tears holding the cries to himself," he said.

Yoo and Chul-min escaped from North Korea to China in 1998, after losing Yoo's wife and other son, who died of starvation in the isolated Stalinist country.

"We didn't have anything to eat from March to fall," Yoo remembers. "We depended solely on grass or something to survive."

"Only Chul-min survived the famine. My wife and another son died because they didn't eat enough," he said.

Yoo took on odd manual labor jobs on farms and construction sites in China. "We didn't starve in China, but we were scared of [being arrested by] the Chinese police," he said.

Later, he gave Chul-min into the care of an ethnic Korean Chinese family, who promised to see him at least graduate from junior high school, and give him a chance of a better life than Yoo, with his illegal status in China, could manage.

"Ever since November 1998 Chinese police had arrested so many N. Korean defectors. It was a challenge, to stay with my son, on the run. He had to live like a slave, hiding himself," Yoo said.

"I thought he would be better off being a Chinese, if not he would receive good education or become wealthy, and he wouldn't have to be hiding all the time."

Yoo arrived in South Korea and found a job with a large manufacturer. He began to enquire about his son's wherabouts in 2000, but was unable to track Chul-min down because the boy had changed his name and age.

Later, he located Chul-min using the South Korean organization Durihana, which helps North Korean defectors, and made plans for his son to be smuggled out of China to the South. He was unable to travel there himself because he lacked valid travel documents.

Chul-min died in a Mongolian desert of exhaustion during a long and roundabout journey aimed at bringing him eventually to Seoul.

Meanwhile, four North Korean defectors who arrived recently in Thailand said they wished to go to the United States to study theology, and help save the people of North Korea.

German doctor Norbert Vollertson, who was expelled from North Korea 18 months ago, has dedicated himself to helping defectors with the hope of eventually toppling the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang.

He predicts that the recent wave of defections, especially in China, will soon become a flood, as up to 300,000 North Koreans now in hiding in China seek political asylum in the embassies of third countries in Beijing and through other routes.

China--which fears an East German-style flood of migration across the border from North Korea--has launched a crackdown on North Koreans.

Beijing denies that the migrants are political refugees, calling them economic migrants in search of better opportunities. However, the Chinese authorities have so far allowed some asylum seekers to travel to third countries "for health reasons."

Back in Seoul, Yoo said the South Korean authorities refused to help him when he heard of Chul-min's death, and he wrote a letter to the Mongolian president to ask for help in recovering the boy's body.

Yoo quit his job as soon as he heard the news. "I have nothing in my house. I don't have any luxurious items, nothing. What's the use of living well without my son?"

"During the ceremony of cherishing my son's memory, I only prayed for him to be in a place where there is no famine, nor sorrow. I prayed for him to enjoy himself to the full, and hoped someone would keep his soul."

Yoo said he planned to get involved in working for other North Korean defectors who had been through similar ordeals.

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