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Nan-Hee’s Testimony: A Refugee’s Story
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2016-01-21 11:59:50
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Nan-Hee’s Testimony:  A Refugee’s Story

Nan-Hee BYUN
(A female refugee, arrival of May, 2003)

I was born on December 15, 1980 in the Poong-in District, On Sung, of the Northern Hamgyung Province. My father was a military officer commanding a transportation company. My mother worked as a farm worker at a collective farm. My eldest brother received social welfare due to a leg disability. Another brother worked as a driver in the transportation company, while my sister was a conveyor operator there as well. As for my younger brother, he was a student.

After elementary school, I attended high school until my graduation in March, 1997. Prior to 1994, when rations were cut off by the government, my family was very happy. However, following the ration-cuts my family began to suffer in various ways. To cope with the lack of food, my family would make a kind of rice cake out of pine bark and 'secondary powder' - used as fodder in China. Yet even still, we could only eat twice a day. There were other instances where we would eat flour-processed bark, lees, and bean-curd. When we ran out of these alternatives, my eldest brother heard that he would be able to sell some of his blood for money.  As a result, he decided to sell 100g of blood for 5000 North Korean won.

When my brother decided to sell his blood, he and I decided to go to Hye-san (in the Ryanggang province) together.  He had the intent of using 2000 won to replenish his strength, and to use the remaining 3000 won to support my starving family. I went with him because I had to receive the money while my brother was unconscious during the drawing of blood. 

We left for Hye-san at the end of November, 1996. It took a week to get there. We took trains and walked from station to station when there were no trains available. When we finally arrived in Hye-san, we exited the station and found that a lot of people came to sell their blood as well. In fact, most of the people there lived as kkotjebis (homeless beggars). 

When we asked them about the situation there, they implored us to go back home. We were told that many weren’t allowed to return to their homes because the Chinese buyers deceived them and refused to pay them. Nevertheless, my brother and I decided to go to the national hospital to sell blood. When we arrived, the hospital announced that they would only pay 100 won for 100g blood. This prompted us to give up on selling blood, and to perhaps attempt to go into China. However, the border was securely guarded. Disappointed, we were resigned to head back home hoping for another chance to enter China. During that interminable trip back, our hunger compelled us to cook and eat frogs.

Right when I returned home, my father asked if I could help dig up herbs with him on a mountain. Yet due to the rain and climate, I fell very ill, with symptoms ranging from shivers to high fever. It was diagnosed as typhoid fever. Nonetheless, I was too poor to be hospitalized, so I relied on folk remedies during my recovery. Later, my father’s acquaintance administered acupuncture for me, but it ended up worsening my illness. It was then that my family diligently searched for doctors who could treat me. However, their search turned up empty – empty enough for my brothers to believe that I had to go to China for help. 

At 3 am on May 10, 1997, my older brothers literally carried me on their backs across the Tumen River. We then successfully arrived in Domun city in China.  During the trek I was still disoriented due to my illness.  My brothers’ undeniably went through a great ordeal for my sake, and I regret not being able to at least remember their labor.  It was only later on that I heard that it rained while we crossed the river.  The overflow forced my brothers to swallow a lot of the river-water. When I learned of this, my heart ached (as it still does) for the amount of hardship that my brothers endured.   

When we arrived in China we knocked on countless doors asking for help. Finally, a very kind-hearted older woman welcomed us into her home.  She offered us food, but I still could not swallow anything.  She then called a doctor to treat me, and allowed me to stay with her during my treatment. For a month I received two bottles of IV fluid everyday. It usually took about an hour to administer one bottle of IV fluid.

My senses came back after about two weeks of treatment. During that time, my brothers found work to pay for my treatment, which caused me to be alone most of the time. Without my brothers by my side, I was overwhelmed with loneliness and insecurity. On June 20, 1997, the surge of insecurity led me to leave the house and head back to North Korea. Admittedly, I wasn’t fearful of crossing the river back, mostly due to the fact that I still hadn’t completely recovered my senses. On my attempted return, I was caught by North Korean guards and was detained in the On-sung prison. After six days, I was sent back home.

While being detained, I was asked why I entered China. I told them that I was sick and needed medical treatment. Due to my appearance and fragile state, they did not second guess my explanation. After they positively identified me and my status, the Poongin District Security Agency officer sent me home. 

When I returned home, I spent most of my time around the house or gathering herbs. Then, on the morning of February 28, 1998, my eldest brother came back to our home in North Korea to take me and my older sister to China. We decided to leave that winter, while the Tumen River was frozen. When we crossed, the sound of my brother’s artificial foot clanging on the ice worried me that we would be found and caught.  Fortunately, however, all three of us safely crossed the river to China. 

When we arrived in China, we all went to a place my brother had already known. The residents there raised sheep and so I started helping by keeping trails and aiding in the birth of lambs. My sister and brother stayed with me for a month, but in March they all left for other places. My sister left for Beijing, and my brother left for somewhere else without knowing if we would ever meet again. 

After their departure, the Chinese police somehow discovered me and came to arrest me. When I heard of this, I fled the house to the mountains until it was safe to return to the house. These types of incidents would happen quite often. The Chinese police would come to arrest me usually during meal times or at dawn. One time they came at dawn and I had no time to flee, so I hid inside a closet. I couldn’t come out of the closet even after they left, for I had no idea whether they would suddenly break in. 

I spent three years in such insecurity and fear of being caught. I heard later that my sister was sold to a Korean-Chinese person when she went to Beijing.  I even heard that she gave birth to a baby. Sadly, I have not seen or heard from my sister since then.

As for my eldest brother, he went back and forth to China and North Korea since our parents were still living in North Korea. Then in 1999, when he went into North Korea again, he heard rumors that the Security Agency knew about his traveling back and forth. As a result, in fear of being severely persecuted, he turned himself in. 

However, someone who was also detained at the Security Agency lied and reported that my brother was involved in women-trafficking. This was during the time when the Central Party started inspections and was enforcing rigid regulations on those who crossed the border. Therefore, my brother was severely tortured in various ways and was imprisoned at Chung-jin Provincial Prison Camp for two months.  Afterwards he was sent again to On-sung, Northern Hamgyung Province. 

Later, my brother was shot to death at a mountain side in the Poongin District. It is with great sadness that I am not aware of the details of my brother’s death. If anything, I am certain that he was punished in vain.  He did not deserve, nor should he have received, such persecution. Even the agents are said to have admitted that they killed the wrong person. They even admit that if it wasn’t for the serious inspections initiated by the Central Party, my brother would not have been executed. There’s much I owe to my brother – in many respects I feel like he died on my account. It was for my sake that he decided to go to China in the first place.  My life is a testament of his sacrifice.

While this was happening to my brother and sister, I decided that I had to leave the house where I tended sheep, even though I had grown accustomed to living there. My decision stemmed from various fears, namely, a fear that I could possibly be sold. A potential feud was about to break among the sisters in the household, and I had good reason to suspect that I could be sold. When I approached the old women who had taken me in, she took me to a Catholic church nearby.  The priest there sent me to a Korean-Chinese grandmother who looked after North Koreans. I then stayed in her home for about half a year. 

While I lived with the Korean-Chinese grandmother, some South Koreans helped provide a safe passage for my parents and youngest brother to come to China. When they arrived, it was some of the happiest times for me, for it had been a while since I lived with my family. 

Yet the happiness did not last, as in the summer of 2001, my parents, elder brother, and younger brother were all caught by the Chinese police.  Apparently someone had reported our whereabouts.  My parents, elder brother, and younger brother were repatriated two days later. 

Two months after the repatriation, my father and my elder brother safely came back to China.  However, only my brother stayed while my father returned to North Korea. I heard that my parents and my youngest brother also came to China to look for me but ended up going back to North Korea because they were unable to find me. I have not heard from my family ever since then, nor do I know of their whereabouts.

When I left the grandmother’s home, I stayed in a café owned by a Christian Korean-Chinese person. I wasn’t able to work in the café but was protected by the Christian Koreans there. I also avoided the Chinese police through various means, at times hiding in warehouses or escaping to other places.  It was very much like my earlier days in China.  

Then I was given the opportunity to go to South Korea through the help of very good people.  However, while traveling I was caught yet again.  This time it was in Southeast Asia and I was forced to stay in the Chinese border area for about ten days.  At that time, I despaired that I would never be able to go to South Korea.  Then, due to the kindness of various individuals, I was finally provided passage to what I consider to be a land of hope and freedom.  I finally arrived in Seoul, South Korea, on May 25, 2002.