SEOUL—Three North Korean children found wandering in northeastern China with no one to look after them have been granted refugee status in the United States, and overseas rights groups say there could be thousands more.
“The situation of North Korean orphans in China has been deteriorating, and it has become obvious that we need to extend a helping hand to these children,” Adrian Hong, executive director of the non-governmental human rights group Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), which brought the two children and one teenager to the United States in October 2007.
“Many U.S.-based human rights groups are taking keen interest in North Korean orphans in China, and this has become a major priority for these organizations,” Hong told RFA’s Korean service.
One of the three North Korean orphans, a 16-year old boy, is already living with foster parents in Southern Virginia. According to informed sources, a second North Korean orphan is also on the East Coast, while a third is living on the West Coast.
These ‘second-wave’ orphans are mostly the children of North Korean women who were forced to marry Chinese men.
Some believe the arrival of these North Korean children in the United States may establish a precedent for the adoption of North Korean orphans by American families, an outcome favored by rights groups such as Helping Hands Korea.
“Fourteen North Korean orphans have just arrived at one of the shelters that we run in northeast China,” the group’s founder, Tim Peters, said. The situation of North Korean children has changed in recent years, Peters said.
“Previously, most of the North Korean orphans were the children of defectors who had fled North Korea, and who had lost their parents. What we are seeing now is different from that first wave of orphans. These ‘second-wave’ orphans are mostly the children of North Korean women who were forced to marry Chinese men,” Peters said.
“Their mothers are defectors and generally have not acquired legal status in China. If they are apprehended by the Chinese authorities and forcibly repatriated to North Korea, in many cases their children are left behind,” Peters said.
There are currently an estimated 1,000 North Korean children with no relatives or friends to take care of them, according to Suzanne Scholte, president of the Washington-based think-tank, the Defense Forum Foundation.
She said research was already under way on appropriate measures to have these children adopted by American families or to put them in touch with American foster parents.
“We have been working with NGOs over the past year toward bringing North Korean orphans to the U.S. One important condition is that these children must certify that they have lost their parents or legal guardians, and that they have absolutely no one to rely on,” Scholte said in an interview broadcast Nov. 6.
“If that is the case, rather than having these children go to South Korea with the identity label of ‘North Korean refugee,’ it is better for them and more desirable to bring them to the U.S.”
But LiNK’s Hong said many legal hurdles may remain before more North Korean children could be adopted by U.S. citizens.
One such obstacle relates to a requirement that the authorities in the home country approve the adoption, not an easy task where North Korea is concerned.
Another is that some of the children were born in China to North Korean women who were trafficked or sold into marriage to a Chinese national. They have no legal status in China, but have never been part of the North Korean system.
As many as 300,000 North Koreans are believed to live in hiding in China, where they frequently suffer abuse and exploitation.
Under a U.N. refugee convention, China is obliged to not force defectors back to North Korea, where they face punishment, torture, and humiliation, according to human rights observers. The punishment for defecting is three years in a labor camp and can lead to torture and execution, both for the defectors and their families.
Thousands of North Korean women who fled famine in their homeland in recent years are believed to have been sold as “brides” to Chinese men, who often put them to backbreaking labor and subject them to constant fear, physical assault, and sexual abuse.
The problem of North Korean orphans isn't new.
After the Korean War, thousands of North Korean war orphans were billeted and educated in China, the Soviet Union, and Eastern European countries, all like-minded Communist regimes.
Georgeta Mircioiu,75, taught at a school for North Korean orphans in her native Romania in the 1950s. "Between 1952 and 1960, about 3,000 North Korean orphans were taught at special schools in Romania," she said.
"About 1,000 were high-school and college students, and about 2,000 were younger. All of the other Eastern bloc countries offered to look after North Korean orphans, but Romania took the greatest numbers."
"Only about 500 orphans were sent to Bulgaria. All of them arrived in Eastern Europe after being housed in China for a while. Their voyage by train took about 10 days."
Mircioiu said some of the orphans were street children, while others were the children of deceased high-ranking North Korean officials who still had families in the North, but were sent to Romania because the living conditions were better there.
"Romania was not great either, but at least they had good food, clean and decent shelter and good sanitation and hygiene," she told RFA.
“In 1958, a North Korean Red Cross delegation composed exclusively of female members arrived at the school. Then, all children began to cry, telling the North Korean women that they were homesick and wanted to go back," she said.
"They were told that living conditions were much better in Romania, being able to study there was a great opportunity and bringing them back would not be an easy decision to make. However, in 1960, all North Korean orphans in Romania were sent back.”
“The Romanian teachers and all Romanians who had an opportunity to get to know these children were very fond of them. After their return to North Korea, some of them were lucky enough to be sent to foreign language high schools or colleges, or to study fine arts and film."
"I remember one of them, who used to visit us quite often when we lived in North Korea, who became a diplomat. Others were not so lucky. Despite having done very well in school in Romania and speaking fluent Romanian, they were sent to work in factories, coal mines, or ...the military, wherever the Workers Party needed them.”
Original reporting in Korean by Jang Myeong-Hwa. Korean service director: Kwang-chool Lee. Interview with Georgeta Mircioiu and translation from Korean and Romanian by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written and produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.