'We Had No Choice'

A North Korean mother describes how she and her family joined a tiny group of defectors to resettle in the United States.

2009.10.05
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NK-Child-on-Bus-305.jpg A young North Korean defector waves from a bus on its way to Seoul, Mar. 18, 2002.
AFP

Kim Yeon Hwa is the wife of North Korean defector Suh Won Kyung and the mother of two sons, Suh Cheol and Suh Cheol Young. Until her husband was forcibly repatriated from northern China, where he was in desperate search of money to feed their family, she was reluctant to follow him, because she believed North Korea was a workers’ paradise under the leadership of Kim Jong Il. She told Korean service reporter Wonhee Lee her side of the family’s defection, which started with several years’ hiding in China, continued with a tense trip across China in constant fear of discovery, and a trek through jungle and mountains into Laos. Kim and her family have now resettled in the United States.

“Although we had lost three of our five children to the economic crisis and food shortages, I still believed that our country was the best in the world. I remember when our youngest son was about one year old. We’d tie a rope around his waist and then to the door, as if he were a dog on a leash, and leave him at home by himself the whole day. We had no choice, as both of us had to go out and look for food, and then we’d come home and our child would eat anything we’d put before him.”

“We were struggling to survive, and, as we lost three children because of the food shortages, I began to change my mind regarding defection. After my husband was caught in China and forcibly repatriated to North Korea, I knew we’d all have to defect. In North Korea, all members of a defector’s family are regarded as traitors, so from that point on, I knew that we’d all be seen as traitors, and our life in North Korea would become even harder.”

“While in China, we braced ourselves and worked hard, as our goal was clear: We had to make and save money for our voyage to a third country.”

“Ethnic Koreans in Shenyang helped us a lot while we were on our way to a third country. While traversing a mountainous border crossing into Laos, we ran into more difficulties. We were caught once, and the police told us to return or else we would be arrested. However, we never gave up. We hid in the mountains and then managed to cross into Laos. Those were extremely tense moments, and we were all very afraid.”

“I thought that once we were in Laos, somebody would soon come from the U.S. Embassy. However, other North Korean defectors were being sent to South Korea and we were the only ones stuck there, waiting, with nobody making a commitment to help us and nowhere else to go, so I also began considering going to South Korea. It was my husband who never gave up on our plan to go to America, and finally, luckily, our younger son managed to make that phone call, and all our troubles were over.”

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