|A Teenage Girl’s Flight from North Korea (1)|
A Teenage Girl’s Flight from North Korea (1)
Lee Min OK
Date of Entrance to South Korea: June, 2005
I was born in Hoeryong, North Hamgyeong Province, North Korea in 1983. After the food rations dried up, we lived off corn porridge and my mother went to China. With my father, elder sister (Sun), and little brother (Nam), I have done all kinds of work since I was 13. We have sold noodles, picked dropworts to sell, made bean curd, and, in the winter, collected wood.
Although I graduated from high school, I did not spend many days at school. Even if you don’t go to school, you are still given a high school diploma. Attending school can also be difficult because of various fees.
“Mini assignments” require us to find or buy six rabbit skins to give to the school. A single rabbit skin costs 100 won so six would be 600 won. If someone does not have money to buy the rabbit skins, he or she cannot attend school.
Students are also required to contribute a certain amount of money for decorating the classrooms and purchasing new desks, and cannot attend school if they cannot afford it. How could we afford to pay when we had nothing to eat? As a result, we could not attend school.
Ss My mother went to China to earn money but was caught and brought back to North Korea in September 2003. After being interrogated, she was sent to the labor training corps and finally released in November. On January 11, 2004, when my mother’s condition had improved, we left North Korea together. In China, I lived in rented accommodation with my mother and sister. My sister had previously fallen victim to human trafficking when she left North Korea in September 1999. As it was a round-up period for North Koreans, we could not go outside so we stayed in our room listening to the radio. We finally left Yanji on a train on March 17, 2004, reaching Ulanhaote, in Inner Mongolia’s border region, after changing trains five times on March 20. At the time, we were in a group of 11 people. After crossing two barbed-wire fences, we were seen by Chinese border guards. Of the 11, two escaped and nine were captured (8 females and one male). When I was caught, I just felt numb and could not even cry, but I began to cry in prison later when I thought about the fate awaiting me in North Korea. My mother swallowed sleeping pills that she had kept with her to swallow in case of capture. We were fined 60,000 yuan, but none of us had that amount of money so we all remained in prison. The prison had more than 40 North Koreans, with 7, 8 people kept in each of five cells.
Ten days later on April 2, at nine in the morning everyone was shackled to someone else and we were put on a bus. Four policemen sitting at the front and the back forced us to remain silent. With the drivers taking turns, the bus reached Dandong at four in the afternoon of the following day, April 3.
Three days later, on April 6, we were repatriated to North Korea. We all cried as we crossed the bridge to Shinuiju because we had been caught trying to escape to South Korea.
For three days, we were interrogated by the National Security Agency (NSA) in Shinuiju. We were all stripped naked and searched for any goods or money that we might have brought back from China. We were forced to do “pumping” or repeatedly standing up and sitting down. They say it is possible to discover money hidden on people’s bodies by doing this. While under interrogation, we had to sit on the floor from six o’clock in the morning to ten o’clock in the evening. If we moved even the slightest bit, we were beaten, although some interrogators were more lenient. Three days later, we were transferred from Shinuiju to the Hoeryong NSA. There were 30 people in each cell and we were told to use a palm-sized towel. While the Shinuiju NSA was at least clean, the Hoeryong NSA was very dirty. We could not even wash our faces let alone wash our hair or take a bath. We got so much lice that it makes me sick thinking about it even now.
During the NSA’s interrogation, we were asked if we have seen South Korean films like “Swiri” and “The General’s Son.”
After the NSA interrogation, we received construction training for two months with the NSA training corps. These days it is called the labor cultivation center.
For our meals we were served a little corn rice in nickel bowls along with a tasteless salty soup without any solid ingredients and the work was hard. If we ate only what we were served, we were likely die of malnutrition. I managed to survive because my father sent me dried corn powder from home.
The daily routine was:
5 a.m. Wake up and pre-meal work
(construction, logging, plowing, road repair, etc.)
7 a.m. Washing and breakfast
8 a.m. Work
1 p.m. Work
6 p.m. Supper and washing
10 p.m. Sleep, with 70 to 100 people in two rooms each for men and women
I left the labor corps and returned home on August 15. Anyone who has been to China finds it hard to live in North Korea again because in China there was food and we could speak freely. Thus, I paid a guide 500 yuan and crossed the river into China on September 23. However, immediately after crossing the river I was handed over to a Chinese man who threatened to turn me into the police if I did not marry a man he knew. I was afraid of returning to North Korea so I said I would do as he said. On October 11, I was sold to a 24-year-old man in Hebei province and lived with him for six weeks. There were 11 North Korean women living there after being sold like me. Six were in their teens, one was in her 20s, and four were in their 30s. There I met Soon and with her, I escaped and came to South Korea with the help of the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.
* This testimony was taken in Thailand in May of 2005.