Forced repatriation: The suffering mothers and their abandoned children

A mother’s embrace of her child ( Suardi)

This is Part Two of a four-part series based on the writer’s personal experience. See Part One here.

In the 17th century, when Korean women kidnapped and taken north by invading Qing dynasty forces were freed or escaped and were able to return home, they faced a new misery. Instead of being welcomed and comforted, they were condemned.

Their families called them hwa-nyang-nyeon (woman returning to her hometown) which came to mean an impure woman who would sleep with a man other than her husband.

The children they had from their Qing captors were called ho-rae-ja-sik (son of a barbarian slave). This pejorative term was used to describe a fatherless child who grew up uneducated and undisciplined.

This sad history has returned to haunt thousands of North Korean women. These are the women who flee to China in search of food and fall victim to human trafficking and sexual violence. When the police catch them, they are forcibly returned to North Korea, where they are labeled dirty and are condemned. 

There is no question that such women are victims. They are unprotected by their country, rejected by their communities and live lives of victimization. Their babies are abandoned by their parents and by their country and disappear without ever really entering society.

These abandoned children are 21st century ho-rae-ja-sik. They are rejected by the North Korean and Chinese governments. They might be forcibly repatriated alone. Or they might be born in detention facilities and sent back with their mothers. 

Two years after fleeing North Korea to avoid starvation and after being trafficked to a Chinese man, my mother gave birth to my baby brother. Although he was illiterate and couldn’t even write his own name, the desire to have a son ran through his veins more strongly than anyone. For this reason, we hoped that with the birth of my brother, our situation would improve at least a little. 

That didn’t happen. His father continued to see us as just laborers he had paid for. One freezing winter day, when my brother was just a few weeks old, this Chinese man became enraged in an argument with his parents about his inheritance and threw the baby, a little bundle of flesh and blood, down onto the frozen ground and stormed angrily inside. That night, for the first time, I pitied my brother and realized our fates weren’t that different.

The Chinese man who pays for a North Korean wife is usually too poor to attract a Chinese woman. Or they have physical or mental disabilities. The children they have grow up in more fragile family environments than ordinary Chinese children because their mothers don’t have legal residence.

In our case, the Chinese police turned up unexpectedly one night a year after my brother was born. He could stay with his father but the fact he was Chinese did not stop the authorities from taking his mother and sisters away. They seemed more eager to comply with North Korea’s demands than caring for their own. We were sent back over the border.

Although China and North Korea have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, my sister and I, who were 17 and 15 at the time, were denied all its protections, such as limits on detention, separation from adult prisoners and the prohibition of forced labor.

Not only were we held with adults, but we experienced inhumane treatment, such as naked inspections. North Korea considers under-16 to be children, so my sister was obliged to perform daily adult labor. As a child, I had a different kind of forced labor. I had to pick stones and rotten corn kernels out of pig feed corn imported from China. 

Pregnant women faced a different level of suffering. They tried their best to hide their pregnancies. Once discovered, they pleaded that the fathers were not Chinese.  They were not believed and, to the North Korean authorities, there was no reason to save any newborns. 

The least painful option was an induced miscarriage. Defectors say that many are forced to have abortions. They also report that, if a baby is born, it is often smothered on the spot, face down on the floor. Such is the fate, in the regime’s own words, of the “seeds of the filthy Chinese bastards.”

After many ups and downs, on the day we managed to escape again into China, mother gave us a choice. We could return to the house where my brother was or to seek a new life elsewhere. My sister said she couldn’t go back there. But I said I wanted to return and check on him. 

And so, we went back. But it wasn’t long before we had to flee that place and leave my brother behind. Our life of rushing barefoot into the mountains at all times of day and night to escape the police made life intolerable. Not to mention that my sister was being lined up for forced matchmaking and was desperate to escape. 

So my brother was abandoned again. This is the lament of many North Korean mothers and the reality for their children. 

Treated as modern-day hwa-nyang-nyeon and ho-rae-ja-sik, these mothers and their children are victims of rotten relations between North Korea and China. 

Not only are they unprotected by their home countries, they are also despised and their lives are threatened. They are the protagonists of a life of misfortune, trapped in the shackles of forced repatriation, unable to maintain even the bonds between parent and child.

Kim Eun-ju

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