North Koreans candidate for Red Cross Award

…Every year thousands of women suffering from starvation and suppression flee from North Korea to China. Some become victims of violence or are forced into marriage, while others continue towards South Korea. Christian priests help the women along the way but “God’s stamp” also endangers their lives. And where does their journey end? We have followed three women in search of freedom – in Shenyang, Bangkok and Seoul.

Amnesty Journal has submitted “The Flight from North Korea” for the German Red Cross Media Award 2010. The jury’s decision will be made in April.

The women’s story has been published in Denmark, Germany, Schwitzerland and Sweden.

German version

Danish version

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For English version follow the link below

The Flight from North Korea

Every year thousands of women suffering from starvation and suppression flee from North Korea to China. Some become victims of violence or are forced into marriage, while others continue towards South Korea. Christian priests help the women along the way but “God’s stamp” also endangers their lives. And where does their journey end? We have followed three women in search of freedom – in Shenyang, Bangkok and Seoul.

By Thomas Aue Sobol

The South Korean priest steps on the gas, the van accelerates across the pockmarked dirt road, while the neon lights from the street create a striped pattern across the two people in the trunk. They are grown women but look like children, curled up. They are fleeing from North Korea, the terror regime on the other side of the Tumen River.
From the Chinese side of the river, North Korea looks peaceful: Straight white rows of houses, the smoke rising from a paper factory, two children bathing naked in the river – one of them waves to us. Further away, up on the green hillside, soldiers emerge from a small hut. Behind them red gravel trails branch out like blood vessels across the face of the mountain. The dictator has tattooed nature:
“Kim Jong Il – may he live 10,000 years!” is written in white on the rock wall.
Obscured by the night, every year thousands of refugees cross the Baitou mountain range, creeping around the border patrol or bribing them with their last possessions. In pursuit of a better life – or just to survive. Two out of three refugees from North Korea are women. It is easier for them to run away and find work in China, but they often end up being sold into the sex trade or to Chinese men. In violation of UN conventions, China chase the women and returns them to North Korea – where they are treated as traitors and face prison, torture and in the worst cases execution. Meanwhile an alliance of protestant priests and human traffickers attempt to lead the women the other way along the “underground railroad” towards freedom in South Korea – and towards God.

Escaping Sex Slavery
21-year-old Mi-Young’s body is thin and pale and seems too frail to encompass the story she is about to tell. In the following days we meet her and several other North Korean women in hotels in the Chinese metropolis Shenyang, about 200 kilometers from the North Korean border.
“I am nervous the room is under surveillance,” says Mi-Young.
In North Korea where everyone spies on everyone, criticizing President Kim Jong-Il or Founding Father Kim Il-Sung can cost you your life.
“I have nothing bad to say about them,” says Mi-Young, but later she adds, “they are not the ones that make the corn grow.”
Somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000 North Koreans live like hunted animals in China. They are in constant danger of being deported – the Chinese are financially rewarded for turning them in, and fined for helping them hide.
The long curtains cover the window, as Mi-Young tells about her childhood during the famine in the 90’s.
“When there were no more corn kernels left on the cob, we ate the husk, you know the part covering the cob. We made a kind of soup or porridge from it, or we ate grass and plants from the mountains that made our heads swell up,” says Mi-Young and continues: “Here in China they would not feed that kind of food to the pigs.”
Little by little North Korea’s children died, soon thereafter the adults followed. While the country exported fish and fruits, over one million people starved to death. In Mi-Young’s village the dead were not buried, there were no trees left to make coffins.
Those who committed survival related crimes were shot in the head. Mi-Young was always in the front row when the public executions took place – the children were required to attend.
“If I commit a crime I will die a horrible death,” she remembers thinking. One of the offenders had butchered an ox; another sold women to Chinese men. Later Mi-Young’s father suffered a brain aneurysm and without someone to provide for her, the daughter saw no other alternative but to escape to China where rumor had it, there was plenty of rice. Mi-Young was 19 years old and weighed 35 kilos.
But the friend she fled with betrayed Mi-Young and sold her as a sex slave to a Chinese man. She managed to escape but was caught by the police and sent back across the border. How Mi-Young fled North Korea the second time, we shall find out later.

Hungry Retarded Soldiers
Mi-Young’s older sister enters the hotel room silently cradling her baby. “When I came to China my eyes got so big,” she uses her fingers to pull her eyes wide open illustrating her reaction, when she encountered the food, the cars and the wealth. Mi-Sun arrived from North Korea a month ago. The stress of the hunted lingers in her voice.
“After my sister ran away, life became more and more difficult for us. The police said: ‘It is your daughter and sister, you are responsible for her and you will be punished!’”
“But my mother bribed them,” she continues.
Back in the North, Mi-Sun first suspected they were being deceived when she saw that the rice sacks at the market were marked “South Korea”. Without foreign TV or radio channels, she only knew the North Korean version of world events.
“Our leaders told us they were starving terribly in South Korea, so how could they send us rice?” the refugee asks.
In North Korea the great famine of the 90’s has ended, but the hunger has not. According to a UN report published in October, about 9 million North Koreans – over one third of the population – are in need of food aid, but the United Nations World Food Programme only reaches about 2 million people. The unwillingness of the West to donate food is in part related to the missile tests North Korea conducted last spring. In 2008 South Korea discontinued its annual shipment of half a million ton food because it could not be confirmed that the food reached the needy. South Korea has recently announced that it will send 10,000 tons corn and 20 tons powdered milk to North Korea – a small respite. But any large-scale assistance is still tied to a demand for denuclearization.
Following the collapse of North Korea’s food rationing system in the 90’s, only high ranking state officials and members of the military elite is being fed by the regime – the rest of the population is dependent on the corrupt and unpredictable black market that emerged after the famine.
Founding Father Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il have for decades promoted the nationalistic communist ideology Juche. It centers on a strong military, a glorification of national leaders and complete self-reliance in areas diplomatic and economic. The isolation is a catastrophe for the population. Crops are produced using oxen rather than machines, and the power supply is insufficient. North Korea produces 1 million ton less food than it needs to feed its people and to make things worse, the barren farmland is vulnerable to natural disasters. The failing military system has marked the population: According to a US report, years of hunger have caused mental retardation in the general population to the extent that one out of every four drafted soldiers are unable to serve.
Mi-Young has been in China for several years following her second escape; she has worked illegally in guesthouses and restaurants, and periodically lived in the street. When someone suspects her to be North Korean, she runs away and starts over in a new place. Some Chinese sack their North Korean laborers the day before payday – if the laborers object, they are threatened with being reported to the police .
“I have no freedom!” Mi-Young wrote some time ago to the South Korean pastor Chun Ki Won from the Durihana Mission, “I want to live like a normal human being.”

Christians ignore China
In Seoul Pastor Chun Ki Won gets comfortable at his desk behind a low glass shield. Dressed in clerical garb he plays back a recording from the television. A North Korean TV host stares straight into the camera badmouthing the pastor.
Occasionally Chun Ki Won glances at the monitor that displays images from the building’s security cameras.
“The CIA offered me bodyguards, they were here only two days – I could not handle it,” says the pastor and continues:
“If I am meant to die, then let me die.”
In search of new business opportunities hotel owner Chun Ki Won traveled to North East China in 1995. On the banks of the Tumen River he saw the frozen bodies of North Koreans and witnessed teenage girls being deported by the Chinese police. Enraged, the hotel owner went home, became an ordained minister and founded the Durihana Mission. In 1999 he returned to China, this time to save as many women as possible. And bring them closer to God. Two years later – after being caught on the Mongolian-Chinese border – he spent eight months in a Chinese prison. The nine North Koreans, he tried to smuggle out, were deported. Since then Chun Ki Won has helped 830 refugees to South Korea.
“No matter what China says, we follow the law of God, and it tells us to help those who suffer,” the pastor points out.
He criticizes China’s disregard for the UN convention on refugees that bans deporting people who may face torture or persecution in their home country. China claims that the refugees do not exist – rather they are illegal immigrants. Especially leading up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing the number of deportations escalated. Every week 150-300 North Koreans were sent back. And since the capture of two American journalists last spring by North Korean border patrol; the surveillance has intensified – from the North Korean side.
“I have dedicated my life to saving as many refugees as I can,” says Chun Ki Won.
The refugees are baptized in the mission’s hiding places in China where they also study the Bible for hours every day. But the heavy emphasis on religion comes with a risk: If the escape fails, the “Christian connection” can lead to torture, life imprisonment or execution in North Korea, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Humans Right Watch point out. The dictatorship hates Christianity – it collides with the idolization of the only acceptable gods: Kim and Kim. This also proves to be a serious threat to Mi-Young and her sister.

Last Stop before Freedom
Over 7,000 kilometers from the Tumen River 25-year-old Eunsuh opens a rusty gate in the middle of Thailand’s exuberant capital Bangkok. This is where Durihana hides the refugees once they arrive from China and Laos. The birthday of one of the women is being celebrated with a candlelit cake, outside someone is playing badminton.
From the missionary’s hiding place in Shenyang the fugitives are being led to Beijing and from there 3,000 kilometers by train to Kumming, a city in the southwest of China. They must hide from the train conductors checking identification and their language alone can give them away to the other passengers. In The Golden Triangle where China, Myanmar and Laos meet, human smugglers guide the women through the jungle and over mountains and rivers, where border patrols and gangs recognize easy victims when they see refugees. From the bottom of Laos where it meets Thailand, freedom becomes tangible, but the women are still fearful. It is a short distance across the muddy brown river to Thailand but if they are captured now it is fatal. Like China communist Laos sends the refugees back to North Korea.
“I still do not feel safe, I do not have an ID card and I can be arrested and sent to prison at any moment,” says Eunsuh from her hiding place behind the rusty gate in Bangkok.
When she arrived in Thailand she was detained for a month in a place so crowded that the refugees had to pay for a spot to lie down on. In South East Asia, Thailand is the safest country for the North Koreans – the Thai government extradites them to Seoul rather than Pyongyang. But observers fear that in the future the country that already has about 2 million immigrants from Myanmar will prevent the refugees from entering from Laos. Earlier Vietnam was the preferred country of refuge but when a plane carrying 468 North Korean defectors in 2004 flew from Vietnam to Seoul, North Korea reacted with threats and condemnation. Since then Vietnam has tried to close its borders more effectively, but it did not prevent nine asylum seekers in reaching the Danish embassy in Hanoi in September 2009.
Eunsuh tells that she, like Mi-Young, was sold in China – by her own mother. After having lived for several years with a violent Chinese man, she met some missionaries that helped her flee towards Mongolia. But the escape failed and Eunsuh was deported to North Korea.
“Do you believe in God?” roared the interrogation officer in the North Korean prison, “tell the truth or suffer the consequences!”
The interrogation continued for 16 hours, where Eunsuh kept denying that she believed in God. The next six months she spent in a 5×5 meter cell with 40-50 other prisoners. “I prayed to God with my eyes open,” says Eunsuh.
Back in China, Mi-Young also spoke about the brutality she had witnessed in the prison she was sent to in North Korea.
“The prison guards yelled at a pregnant women who had been to China: ‘Why did you sleep with a Chinese man, you traitor?’ They cursed her for having bleached hair and beat her until she coughed up blood…and then they beat her some more,” tells Mi-Young and lowers her voice to a whisper: “In the end, she died.”
According to human rights organizations there are about 200,000 North Korean prisoners of conscience in detention facilities and forced labor camps throughout the country.
Mi-Young was released from prison after her mother were able to bribe the prison guards. Three months later she fled to China again, worked hard and sent money back home to her family. But in North Korea a gang stole everything and killed her mother.
“I do not regret sending the money, I just wanted to help,” the refugee whispered in Shenyang.
Back in Bangkok Eunsuh hopes that pastor Chun Ki Won can help her get to the USA rather than to South Korea. She is being interviewed at the American embassy; they have to make sure there are no spies amongst the asylum seekers.
“I have heard that the South Koreans look down on us from North Korea, so I prefer to go to the USA. There I will have to start from scratch, but that is what I wish for,” says Eunsuh and adds: “It is better to plant your own seed and make it grow than to let people, whose intentions are unknown, do it for you.”

Jesus more Important than Safety

Chun Ki Won looks around his office, decorated with awards and framed newspaper clippings about the women he has rescued. But it does not always end well.
Mi-Young’s sister Mi-Sun and the baby she brought with her to the hotel room in Shenyang have been arrested by the Chinese police and sent back across the Tumen River to North Korea.
“It was one of our Korean-Chinese helpers that betrayed us,” says Chun Ki Won.
“Twice I have sent $2,000 to Mi-Sun’s aunt, so that she can buy her freedom, but without any results.”
The pastor hesitates.
Then he says, “I suspect her of keeping the money for herself.”
Informants in North Korea believe that the sister has been placed in one of the prisons ‘from where you never get out.” It is uncertain whether the regime in Pyongyang has discovered that she has become Christian.
Does converting the refugees already in China not endanger them unnecessarily?
“I think differently, more spiritually…it is my mission…I cannot be sure that the refugees will accept the gospel in South Korea. Those that are truly Christian will acknowledge it when they are repatriated in North Korea, but most of them will just lie in order to avoid punishment,” says Chun Ki Won.
But you acknowledge that the refugees receive a harsher punishment if the North Koreans discover that they have converted to Christianity?
“Yes, that is true.”
“-So why not wait to introduce them to Christianity until they are safe in South Korea?
“We cannot be sure that they make it to South Korea. We do not know what the future will bring, so we cannot ‘wait for tomorrow’. Can you perhaps guarantee that you will wake up in the morning? As Christians we believe that when we die we go to heaven, and when there is a chance to help others we grab it.”
But is there not a chance that the refugees feel pressured to become Christian to receive help?
“That is possible, but it is not what we want. Our goal is that they really believe in Jesus Christ.”

Vanishing Brotherly Love
“Often I sit on the bus and look at South Koreans and think: Do you value the freedom you have? I have risked my life to get here, so I know how precious freedom is.”
When 23-year-old Yumi serves tea in South Korea’s capital Seoul, jewelry sparkles around her neck and ears. In North Korea the only piece of jewelry she was allowed to wear was the insignia of Kim Il-Sung.
Always near the heart.
“He was a bad human being,” says Yumi. Now safe and from a distance, the refugee dares to criticize her fatherly leader.
“In North Korea we were always shown a film about a South Korean child that died begging and we were told that we were the happiest people on earth. When I came to China, people criticized our leaders and I asked them: Why do you talk badly about the people we idolize? The Chinese told me I had been betrayed. With time, I discovered that they were right,” she recollects. Recently North and South Korea, under a lot of media attention, arranged an emotional reunion between siblings, parents and children that have been separated since the end of the Korean war in 1953. But in regards to the refugees arriving from the North the brotherly love seems to be vanishing.
In the mid-90’s most of the defectors were from the military elite or the communist party. They had important information and were received with open arms. Today, the 2,000 poor rural refugees that arrive annually are no “bonus” for South Korea, and it is difficult for them to integrate into a modern capitalist society. So far, 17,000 asylum seekers have arrived. According to a help-organization in Seoul one out of every two North Koreans is unemployed, while two out of three feel discrimination resulting in lower pay and poor career opportunities. Along with the country’s 220,000 migrant workers the North Koreans are creating a new lower class.
“The South Koreans treat us the same as the migrant workers from the Philippines, China and Thailand. They do not view us as equal human beings and we are easy victims because we are used to doing what we are told,” says the director for the North Korean Refugees Support Center, Kan Chul-Ho, a defector himself.
His experience is that North Koreans often are underpaid and cheated by South Korean employers.
“Five decades with tension between the North and the South has also created tension in the hearts of ordinary people,” believes Kang Chul-Ho.
In his book ’This is Paradise! – My North Korean Childhood’ the refugee Hyok Kang describes how he got into fights with South Koreans his own age, because they called him and his friends ‘the dwarfs’. Due to malnutrition North Korean men are generally 10 centimeters shorter than their South Korean brothers and weigh 12 kilos less.
Others believe the refugees should view their lives in freedom more positively.
“They must work harder! When I arrived in Seoul life was not easy, but there are lots of opportunities, if you fight hard enough for it,” says a North Korean taxi driver who has been in the country since the Korean War.
For some the disappointment is too great and they develop ‘nostalgia for the land of nightmares’ and wish to return home or ‘escape’ to a third country.

A New Life
Yumi has lived in Seoul for 18 months and works for Chun Ki Won in the office of the Durihana Mission. After ten years in hiding in China she is now a grown woman. But she has not received any education and has never had a boyfriend.
“Many refugees fantasize about wealth, but I have learned that you have to fight hard to achieve just a little bit,” says Yumi, “I do not have these false hopes about becoming rich.”
Refugees receive about $20,000 from the government to start a new life, but many owe the human traffickers the majority of that money for the passage to South Korea.
For three months the reception center Hanawon taught Yumi about life in a capitalist society, about how to go to the bank and how to shop for groceries. She now studies eight hours a day to get her high school diploma that was impossible for her to take during the exile in China.
“My big sister gets out of Hanawon tomorrow. I have promised her that we are going shopping and will drink tea in the park, but most importantly I have told her she must study. It is the only way to make it here,” says Yumi, who dreams of becoming a nurse some day.
“I want to help the North Koreans when the countries are reunited. I see us as one country,” she says.
At the Durihana Mission Pastor Chun Ki-Won stands on the pulpit and raises his hands protectively over the congregation. He says that 80 percent of the refugees continue to attend service after they arrive in South Korea, right now 15-20 people are worshipping. Yumi closes her eyes to pray. Critics believe that the refugees’ worship of God is reminiscent of the idolization of the leaders of North Korea.
That is not how Yumi sees it.
“I want to find a man with a good Christian heart,” she says.
Yumi wants to go to the USA or Japan. Not because she is depressed about her life in Seoul, but because she wants to experience the world. Now that she can.

Postscript: Mi-Young made it through Laos and Thailand to South Korea, but her sister is still in a North Korean prison. Eunsuh has been granted asylum in the USA. To protect the women’s identity, the names in this article are fictional.