[On The Border] A Journey, Yet to Be Completed, for N.Korean Defectors

      May 04, 2009 14:32

      Almost 2,000 North Korean defectors came to South Korea via third countries in 2007. At this very moment, more than 40,000 North Korean refugees are estimated to live in China, their identities hidden until they can reclaim their peace of mind and their ordinary lives. But the journey may well be endless.

      For the last chapter of our 10-month report on North Korean refugees, we concentrate on the life of one North Korean refugee, Lee Kum-hee. After experiencing forced repatriation, a forced abortion, and separation from her child, she finally headed to South Korea. The horrendous fate of the 29-year old could be seen as a condensed example of the pain of all North Korean refugees.

      ◆ Kim Soon-ok, Art Student

      Kim Soon-ok was her name in North Korea. Her father, a Korean Japanese, came to North Korea on the repatriation ship. The first child, Soon-ok, had been a good singer since childhood. One day, a teacher from the art school called her in and demanded a bribe of a goat, since her family, with relatives in Japan, must be well off. Soon-ok wanted to become a teacher after graduation, so she decided to go to China for just one month and make the necessary money. She crossed the Duman River in September 1998.

      At the time, North Korean refugees were marched back to North Korea chained together in pairs. She saw groups of such people every week. She met her husband, a South Korean. Speaking her mother tongue made her happy. Soon she got pregnant, and the couple promised to go to South Korea together.

      One night in May 2000, Kim boarded a people smuggling boat. Her husband promised to meet her in South Korea as soon as he had saved enough money to travel. Seven months pregnant, Kim hid under a bundle of sheets. One night's sleep in the boat should have taken her to Incheon, but suddenly she woke up to the sound of hobnailed boots: the boat was being checked in the open sea by a North Korean patrol ship. "I thought I was going to die. I wanted to jump right into the sea, but I missed the right moment."

      She was sent to the North Korean State Safety and Security Agency in Sinuiju. Seeing her belly, an officer took her to a hospital. A doctor took a blood sample and swore. "Got pregnant with a South Korean baby?" The doctor examined her womb with his hand in search of the baby's head. He injected her with a huge syringe and gave her a large bucket. She started bleeding, and the dead baby came out. She could not even cry. To survive, she took the bucket out to the doctor to get a certificate. "I was the mother but couldn't do anything. The baby was still moving in the bucket!" Recalling that day, even now Soon-ok cries for hours.

      A month later, she was released under an amnesty for the first inter-Korean summit. As soon as she was out, she crossed the border again. She abandoned the name given her by her father. "I couldn't live in the country that killed my baby." On arrival in an ethnic Korean village in China, she called her husband. He had thought she was dead, and he cried in joy and sorrow.

      ◆ Lee Kum-hee, Chinese Tour Guide

      Soon-ok became Lee Kum-hee, and decided to put the past behind her. Her second child was born in July 2001, prematurely. The senior doctor was yelling at juniors since the baby had been starved of oxygen. Ji-min was born with cerebral palsy as a result. "I didn't want to live. What have we done wrong?" Kum-hee railed. But although it was a medical accident, she could not argue with the doctors. If her identity was revealed, she would be deported back to North Korea.

      A mother and son at play. A month later, the mother, whose face cannot be shown, left the child behind to escape alone.

      She went to the hospital with her son three times a week. The doctor told her the child must not catch cold since his immune system was still vulnerable. Medical bills started piling up. Kum-hee started working as a tour guide. "A North Korean refugee for a tour guide? What are you going to do if you're found out?" her husband wanted to know. "My baby is sick. I'm going to do whatever it takes," she said. Tips were generous, and the child was bright and learned both Korean and Chinese quickly.

      But in October 2007, Ji-min was hospitalized. The doctor was not even sure about the exact name of the illness. She finally decided to escape China to take care of Ji-min in Korea. She bought a Chinese ID number to apply for a passport, and within a month, an ID had been issued. So had a passport and a visa to South Korea. She prepared the son for the separation step by step, telling him she would come back after 60 nights' sleep. She also took him to a department store, to buy him clothes that would be big enough to wear for a few years.

      When he saw his mother in her good traveling clothes and with her luggage, he sensed it was time and would not let her go. She ran without looking back. "On that day I knew what a broken heart is like," she recalls.

      On Nov. 22, at a Chinese airport, a woman stands in front of the immigration checkpoint. Would the passport be fine? Her palms were moist from nervousness. She had written hundreds of departure cards for her customers as a tour guide, but now she had to correct her own many times over. But the immigration interview was unexpectedly easy. The officer asked, "Is it your first trip?" "Yes." Approval stamped. Immediately she called her son. "Mommy will come back. Be a good boy."

      ◆ Kim Mi-hye, Junior Employee in Seoul

      It is March 2008, and she is now called Kim Mi-hye. She has completed her training in Hanawon, a mandatory course for North Korean defectors. The name was invented by her boss. Mi-hye is still confused. It will take a few thousand dollars to bring in her son here, but a month's salary is a little over US$1,200, and it has not been paid for three months because the firm is in financial trouble. The child's medical expenses are a headache.

      Capitalism is hard to adjust to: $1,200 is big money in China, but the plan to bring her son in is still getting delayed. Yesterday she talked to her son again. He had been refusing to talk to her and finally said, "Mom, I hate you. You abandoned me."

      She gets lonely. She was lonely in North Korea, in China, and she is even lonelier in Korea. Crossing the border seemed to road to heaven. But here is another heaven? Her journey has yet to be completed.

      By Park Jong-in, Lee Hark-joon 

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