“Would you like to see how a North Korean soldier marches?”
As she demonstrated for the room of students the signature stiff, leaping march of the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA), Kim Jeong-ah maintained a solemn expression. When she finished, she turned to face her audience and spoke to her translator.
Kim Jeong-ah is the founder and executive director of Tongil Mom, a group of North Korean refugee women who seek to be reunited with their children. She is also a former soldier for the NKPA.
“She asks if you have seen the propaganda videos,” said a translator, referring to dramatic videos released periodically by Kim Jong-un’s dictatorial regime in North Korea that show hundreds of soldiers step-marching in military parades.
Several students nodded.
“These videos, these marches, are human rights violations,” he translated for her.
“When soldiers train,” Jeong-ah said, “they get hip gout, hemorrhoids or dislocated discs.”
By the time she turned 21, Jeong-ah had developed hip gout that was so severe she lost control of the lower half of her body. Instead of treating her for her condition, government doctors confined her to a small room, where she was unable to control even her bowel movements.
“I was crawling in my own feces,” she recalled. “I cursed the mother that gave birth to me. I thought, ‘Instead of giving birth to me, you should have twisted my neck and killed me.’”
Jeong-ah emphasized that her experiences were not unique. In North Korea, widely considered the most closed society in the world, the Kim regime tortures, enslaves, executes, and imprisons – all to maintain control over its citizens.
Left by her birth parents at a young age, Jeong-ah vowed to herself that she would never desert her son or daughter as her mother had deserted her.
“But I myself abandoned my own child,” she explained.
Jeong-ah gave birth four times. Her first child, a girl, was forcefully taken from her by her in-laws. Her second child, a boy who was subjected to violence in the womb by Jeong-ah’s husband at the time, died shortly after birth.
“He kicked me in the stomach when I was seven months pregnant,” she said.
After her son’s death, Jeong-ah knew she had no alternative but to seek refuge outside of North Korea. But the routes to flee North Korea are limited. North Korea’s border with South Korea is too heavily guarded to attempt to cross, so defectors must escape through the country’s northern border with China.
“Almost all of the North Korean women that cross into China are sold into human trafficking,” Jeong-ah said.
Jeong-ah eventually escaped to China, where she was sold to a man that became her husband and eventually gave birth to a daughter she had conceived while in North Korea. Though she had escaped the country, Jeong-ah feared she would be discovered by the Chinese authorities and forcefully repatriated to North Korea. While repatriation is usually voluntary, China returns defectors to their birth country against their will.
“Because of China’s policy of forced repatriation for North Korean defectors,” she said, “I feared for my daughter. So I placed her under my husband’s family registry to protect her from arrest and repatriation.”
Jeong-ah was able to able to flee from China into South Korea, but she had to leave her daughter behind. Today her daughter is nine years old and “living with a man who is not her father.”
Motivations for fleeing North Korea vary, but the consequences of repatriation are almost always severe.
80 percent of defectors are female, and many defect for economic reasons. These women depend largely on their husbands; should they die or lose their jobs, women are left with few means to provide for themselves. Women are not allowed to participate in the formal economy, often forced to work in the black market.
Suzanne Scholte, chairman and founding member of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, explained the importance of the regime’s songbun classification system in determining North Koreans’ access to resources like food, jobs, and education.
“There are three major classifications of people: the loyal few or the elite, those who were wavering, and those that were hostile to the regime. If you are considered part of those that are loyal, then you will have access to food, material goods, and the benefits of a good education,” Scholte told The Politic.
Those lower on the classification system, however, are not so fortunate. During the Great Famine, Kim government officials are believed to have used food as a weapon by banning disloyal North Koreans from receiving aid.
“It’s almost like an apartheid system. It has nothing to do with your talents. It has nothing to do with your ambitions. It’s an extreme method of control,” said Scholte.
Hwang Hyun-Jeong, a member of Tongil Moms, recalled her struggle to make ends meet during the famine.
“The public distribution system organized by the state had collapsed, and people working for the state weren’t being paid,” she said in an interview with The Politic. “We went to work in the underground marketplace to survive.”
While selling goods on the black market, Hyun-Jeong met a couple who encouraged her to leave her life in North Korea.
“They told me if I followed them I could make a lot of money in China,” Hyun-Jeong said.
Hyun-Jeong agreed to follow the strange couple, only to realize too late that she had been fooled. The couple sold her into slavery in China, where she worked for three years before escaping to South Korea.
The price she paid for freedom was high. Though she has found a new life for herself in South Korea, Hyun-Jeong has not seen her daughter in twelve years.
“Ever since the Great Famine, in which 600,000 to 3,000,000 people died, many more North Koreans have escaped from the country,” said Greg Scarliatiou, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea in an interview with The Politic.
“About 30,000 of them have resettled in South Korea. These refugees do not receive any protection in China,” Scarliatiou said.
The women of Tongil Moms hope that by raising awareness about China’s inhumane repatriation policy, they will not have to leave their children for their own safety.
“It is said North Koreans defect twice: once from North Korea, and once from China. Both times they risk their lives,” Jeong-ah said.
Human rights groups have long condemned China’s repatriation policy on North Korean defectors as a violation of international law. Despite evidence to the contrary, Chinese officials maintain that the North Korean defectors crossing into China are economic migrants, not refugees. They also claim that defectors returned to North Korea are not punished.
Casey Lartigue, a founder of the nonprofit Teach North Korean Refugees, compared China’s repatriation to slavery in the American South.
“In the American South it was illegal to help slaves who were trying to escape, and it’s illegal in China to help North Korean refugees do the same,” said Lartigue in an interview with The Politic. “There were bonuses and awards given to people who helped catch American slaves. In the same way, in China people get rewards for catching or giving information to help catch refugees.”
“It was an outrage what happened in 19th century America. And it’s an outrage what’s happening today,” he said.
In 2013, the United Nations Committee of Inquiry found the Chinese government guilty of crimes against humanity for its forceful return of North Korean refugees to the dangerous conditions from which they had fled.
But Chinese officials have continued their policy of forced repatriation, and many feel the international community has failed to respond appropriately.
“Trying to get more action, to put more pressure on China, has been very difficult because of our financial relationship with China,” Scholte said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. Our government has not pushed China the way we should, and that’s very frustrating. There doesn’t seem to be a willingness to put the kind of pressure on them that is necessary.”
China has also offered financial support to the Kim regime. The country has been North Korea’s most important ally and trading partner, providing most of its food and energy. China also opposes any harsh sanctions against its neighbor that might threaten Kim Jong-un’s regime.
Dr. Go Myung-hyung, research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said that Chinese assistance is one of the primary reasons behind the continuing legitimacy of the Kim regime.
“North Korea wouldn’t survive without Chinese aid,” Go told The Politic.
The country has even shown a willingness to provide commodities to North Korea despite the government’s inability to pay.
“For instance, China exports crude oil to North Korea, but these are on long-term loans that China probably does not expect to get repaid,” said Go.
“So implementing sanctions aggressively, especially in finding the banks in China that do business with North Korea, and, secondly, ending slave labor, are the most important things we can do to stop the regime,” emphasized Scholte.
“If we stop the flow of money to the regime, it cannot survive, because Kim Jong-Un won’t be able to reward people with fancy cars or watches if there’s no money. That’s how [Kim] buys loyalty,” she continued.
Frustrated with the slow pace of policy changes in the United States, many humanitarian organizations have turned to offering more direct assistance. They fund rescue missions, spread information within North Korea, and help North Korean refugees once they have reached safety.
One such organization is Free North Korea Radio, an independent radio broadcaster based in Seoul, South Korea. The station organizers are mostly refugees who broadcast to North Koreans looking to defect. Their programming covers the true history of the Korean War, obscured by government propaganda drilled into North Korean citizens. The station also highlights differences between North and South Korea and shares stories of recent defectors. Their program has been sponsored by the North Korea Freedom Coalition for several years.
“There is also an entire program on educating North Koreans on human rights,” Scholte said. “Questions like What are human rights? What is democracy? They don’t even know what a human right is or that they have those.”
Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy for Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), spoke with The Politic about the work his organization does to help bring aspiring defectors to freedom. The group fundraises for rescue missions from both North Korea and China, bringing refugees to South Korea without expectations of repayment.
“Last year, we brought 145 people through,” explained Park. “That’s about 11 percent of the North Koreans that made it to South Korea in 2015.”
Refugees assisted by LiNK may be coming from either North Korea or China. Sometimes, a defector is caught in China because of the country’s repatriation policy.
“When a North Korean person escapes to China and is living in China, we have networks to help identify these people and connect them with help,” Park said.
LiNK’s support is not limited to rescue missions. The group also works with refugees once they have arrived in South Korea to ease them into their new, often strange, environment. Once refugees have settled in, they can send money to family or friends left behind in North Korea via broker networks.
“We work with people, in the long run, to help them fulfill their potential in their new lives,” Park explained. “Some of these refugees go on to send money earned back to family members in North Korea.”
A $1,000 transfer is often enough to make a difference in North Korean lives.
Media outlets often ignore the issue of settling refugees after their defection. People are drawn to the horror stories of the Kim dictatorship and the conditions within North Korea but seem less captivated by stories of refugees in the years after their escape.
Lartigue’s nonprofit, Teach North Korean Refugees, focuses on teaching refugees English skills, so they can more confidently enter the job market. Lartigue explained how he identified a need for educational programs after first becoming involved with the effort to help North Koreans.
“Look, the escape is just the beginning of the battle,” he said. “Getting out of North Korea is tough, but so is coming over to a brand new society.”
Some refugees have gone on to write memoirs, give speeches, and help others gain the confidence to lead meaningful lives in a new place. Yonmi Park, who left North Korea in 2007, authored In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom.
“One thing Yomni would say often is, ‘People need to stop treating the North Korea issue as some joke, where there’s a crazy dictator and brainwashed people. They turn it into a caricature. They need to realize that many people are struggling because of the dictators here. Our focus should be on helping them,’” Lartigue recalled.
Activists like Park, Lartigue, and Scholte all stressed the importance of reshaping the narrative of the North Korean issue from one focused on the Kim dictatorship to one focused on the people’s efforts to improve their lives after escape. Before they can achieve liberty for themselves and their country, North Korean refugees need those removed from the conflict to listen. The challenges in North Korea may be enormous, but they are not insurmountable.
“North Korea is already changing, already opening,” reflected Park. “It is moving toward a market economy, toward more external information access. People have more reference points with which they can compare their situations.”
Scholte recalled the North Korean Human Rights Act, passed by President Bush in 2004, and credited the bill’s success to North Korea Freedom Day, a holiday dedicated to activism on behalf of North Koreans.
“Members of Congress said that’s why the bill passed. We had a thousand people come to Washington and rally on Capitol Hill,” Scholte said. “People also went to visit their senators or talk to their congressmen that afternoon to ask them to support the legislation.”
The activism propelling American legislation draws its strength from the growing movement led by the defectors themselves, women like Kim Jeong-ah and her fellow Tongil Moms. Their circumstances may be extraordinary, but even more impressive is their perseverance as they work to secure a place to call home for themselves and others. Change may not be immediate. But when defectors share their stories, the least we can do is listen.