Four-year-old Sun-wha lives in Kaishantun, 30 minutes distance by car from Wangchung. She was born to a mother who had crossed the Duman (or Tumen) River and a Chaoxianzu or ethnic Korean in China. But little Sun-wha only has pictures to remind her of her mother, who left home when the girl was just one year old, with a promise that she would be back home as soon as she made enough money in Dandong, the big city. Since then, she has called only twice.
Her father works in the field while Sun-wha is taken care of by her grandparents. Clumsy in both Chinese and Korean, the child takes out her mother's photos and holds them to her cheek. "Don't you miss your mother?" She screams. "She does this all the time when she hears the word 'mother.' She won't talk about that," says her grandmother. Her father lights a cigarette. "The girl needs an ID to attend a school, but without her mother here there's nothing we can do."
Ok-pyung lives near Yanji with her mother, a North Korean defector, and a bedridden father. The man, who has kidney disease, bought her mother for at 5,000 yuan, or approximately US$700. Her mother planned to go back to North Korea after earning money for a couple of months, but human traffickers took her dream away. A college graduate form North Korea, she had just got married when she crossed the river.
When Ok-pyung was three years old, her family started watching her mother, who admits she was trying to get back to North Korea. But in the end she gave up and came back for the sake of her daughter. "I meant to go back, but because of Ok-pyung..."
Ok-pyung still gets nervous when her mother is out of her sight, and follows her around all day. "Can't dispense with her mom. Ok-pyung's teacher is concerned as her Chinese is not improving. "Her mother doesn't speak Chinese as she's from North Korea, and Ok-pyung spends all day with her, so her Chinese stays the same." Only insistent begging got the girl into elementary school.
Today is Sept. 25, 2007, and that means Chuseok, Korean Thanksgiving. Ok-pyung hovers around her mother, who is working on the farm. She gets up at 3 a.m., and works from 4 a.m. till lunchtime without a break. Then she continues to work until 6 p.m., and goes to bed at 10. But Ok-pyung makes it all bearable. "I have a mother, and since it's Chuseok today, I really miss her. But I can look at my daughter instead."
So what does she wish for her daughter? "Nothing much, I just want her to be able to go to middle school." It seems a humble dream: to buy a Chinese ID for her daughter to get her into middle school. But that costs $680. She knows her year's earnings are barely $550. "Sometimes I think I might have stayed in North Korea if I'd known I wouldn't be able to provide for my own children." Ok-pyung's eyes tear up again.
Sun-shei's mother is another refugee from the North. Her grandmother bought the woman for 5,000 yuan, but she disappeared two months after giving birth to Sun-shei. "She said she wanted to make money in the big city. I said no, so she sneaked away," the grandmother recalls. "I can't forgive her."
Asked where her mother is, Sun-shei answers in a bitter voice, "Maybe Korea? Wherever she wants." The girl cannot understand why her mother abandoned her. And why is her grandmother always protecting her runaway mother? "It's fun at school, but not at home."
In October 2006, her mother suddenly reappeared. She said she had been in South Korea and was now going to move again, to marry a Japanese man. She looked after the child for three months, then left again.
Sun-shei's grandmother seemed to be the only one in the village who didn't know. People just cannot talk about it to her.
When the news team is about to leave, Sun-shei approaches. "To tell you the truth, I miss my mom. I wish she'd come back soon." Will the girl be able to understand her mother when she grow up? "Please make sure to tell her that I miss her." Sun-shei's voice is trembling.
By Park Jong-in, Lee Hark-joon