Forced repatriation to North Korea: The silence of the victims

Eunju Kim, the author, fled from North Korea with her family in 2002 and now lives in Seoul, Korea. (© 2023. Photo by Hyejeong Park, Presented by Liberty in North Korea.)

This feature is Part One of a four-part series. It is based on the writer’s personal experience

If silence is negligence, as the saying goes, continued silence is an inducement to violence. The silence of defectors invites further abuse and leads to abuse of others as well.

With the resumption of North Korea-China exchanges last October, after the pandemic was over, more than 600 escapees were sent back to North Korea against their will. When they heard about this, human rights groups and international organizations raised legal and humanitarian concerns.

But the voices of defectors themselves were not heard. This was in large part due to the Chinese government’s restriction of access by the international media. But at the same time, defectors choose to remain silent of their own accord. 

They chose silence in North Korea in order to survive. They chose silence in China to avoid being sent back to the North. And they choose silence in South Korea in order to forget.

This silence today reminds me of my own story. 

It was an icy cold February day in 1999 when my mother held the hands of her 14-year-old and 12-year-old daughters and stepped onto the frozen Tumen River. The 12-year-old was me. “I’d rather die from a bullet than starve to death here,” my mother said.

What led to her decision was not just the incompetence of North Korea’s leaders or her dissatisfaction with society. It was a single remark from an acquaintance. “If you go to China, there’s an abundance of food,” the acquaintance said. 

We found it indeed to be true. In North Korea, we couldn’t even get corn, but in China, dogs and pigs were fed rice. 

But that was all we found. As defectors, we couldn’t expect humane treatment, let alone anything resembling a decent life.

The night we crossed, something happened that scarred us for life. We were walking along a road, not knowing where to go, when a car slowed and moved alongside us. Suddenly, its door opened and rough hands grabbed my sister. My mother and I tried to keep a hold of her, but the car sped up and we lost our grip. 

My sister was just a little girl who hadn’t yet gone through puberty. But she could not escape. SHe was raped. My mother never thought to report what happened. Even if she had, she wouldn’t have known where to go or what to say. Of course, if she had gone to the police, they would have treated us as the criminals and sent us back.

As is well known by now, North Koreans escaping into China are vulnerable to sexual assault, human trafficking, forced prostitution and labor exploitation. The sort of people who help them often turn out to be human traffickers or rapists. Those who find work and eventually ask for their promised paycheck are often met with the words, “You’re from North Korea, right?” 

If defectors die in accidents or are murdered, they are buried in the raw ground without a marker. Nobody reports their disappearance. If other defectors ask about them, the voices raised are those of the criminals threatening to report them to the police. 

Thus their silence and the impunity of the perpetrators fuels the vicious cycle. 

Defectors continue to remain silent even after they arrive in South Korea. This is not only because they are afraid that their defection will be discovered and their families in North Korea will be harmed. It is also because it is painful to bring up the memories. 

My mother, my sister and I never spoke about what happened that first night in China. I didn’t have the courage to mention it when I was writing my book A Thousand Miles to Freedom, which was published in 2012 (and written under Eunsun Kim, my pseudonym at that time). 

Then suddenly one day, at a casual dinner, my sister could hold it in no longer. “If I die without saying anything, it will be as if these things never happened, and my life will be so unjust,” she wailed. “I want to tell people everything before I die.” 

We had buried the pain deep in our hearts, hoping it would be forgotten, but at the same time ho[ing that one day the world would know. We were finally able to publicly recount this episode in 2023, 16 years after we settled in South Korea and 11 years after the book was published.

We may be sure that the publicly known cases like ours of abuse experienced in China are just the tip of the iceberg. 

Halting forced repatriation could melt this iceberg of suffering. If there was no longer a threat of being sent back, defectors would have no reason to remain silent. Publicizing cases of abuse not only ensures that perpetrators are punished but also deters potential criminals.

The Chinese government could easily take this action. However, it denies reality. “There are no North Korean defectors in China, only illegal immigrants,” it says. This is why international cooperation and collaboration is an imperative. It is the only way.

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