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"I Was a Broker" (29)
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2016-01-26 12:12:42
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 "I Was a Broker" (29)


RYU Sang-Joon

North Korean defector and activist 

Entered South Korea in 2000



The owner of the house said that it had been a few years since Hyang-Mi’s mother brought her to China. Her mother had been arrested and repatriated in November 2003. Fortunately, Hyang-Mi was outside playing and was able to avoid capture. Her father desperately waited his wife’s return but no news reached them. She could be educated in a small school in Chengdu Elementary School with some money but Hyang-Mi’s father was barely scraping by with government’s aid—there was no financial room to send her to school. As I talked to the owner of the house, a drunk man stumbled into the house and started yelling for Hyang-Mi, screaming at her to come back home with him. The owner asked the drunk man to come into the room and stay and talk with us but no words could get through to him. He was on the tall side, slim with a bearded face and I could tell that this man had led a hard life. Hyang-Mi’s father wasn’t able to control his motor abilities after having had so much to drink. He kept swearing at us and demanded to never inquire about Hyang-Mi since he was more than capable of taking care of her. That night, I returned back to Helong alone. I was worried about Hyang-Mi. If I left her to the mercy of her father who held no consideration for her future, then her dark future seemed evident. Two months afterwards, I learned that Hyang-Mi’s mother died during her return to China. She had brought her eldest son, Myung-Il, with her to China, and with her death, her husband now had to take care of two children. After what happened last time, I decided to wait until the man gave me the children, even though I desperately wanted to take Hyang-Mi away. I got news that he had been swearing at the children daily, irritated with their presence, and was wanted someone to take them away and free him of the burden. I waited until I was sure that their father was desperately wishing for someone to take the children away. I sent people I knew in Tosan to Ryongseochon and asked them to thank the man for taking care of the kids. I gave them 300 won in Chinese and sent them off. Late afternoon, they returned with the children. I bought them new clothes and bags and we headed toward Yangi right away. Near the Yangi Prison was a shelter and the children were left in the protection of the workers at the shelter.


September 10th, 2004, I got news that the Chinese man taking care of Hyang-Mi committed suicide after drinking agricultural pesticides after drowning his sorrows in alcohol. His name was Kim Keum-San and he left a will indicating his yearning for his wife, Ahn-Hae, to return and that he had wrestled with deep depression after his wife’s death, before finally ending his life. Hyang-Mi’s parents lived in Yanggang-do and when the living situation got hard, they came up with a plan. The husband would sell the wife to Chinese men and receive money. She would then escape and the husband would sell her to different Chinese men. However, Hyang-Mi’s birth father was arrested in North Korea as a human smuggler and was publically executed. Hyang-Mi’s mother was arrested by the police and was two months pregnant when she was forcefully repatriated, and barely managed to avoid forced abortion. Hyang-Mi’s mother faced hard labor in the detention center but was determined to return to China with her eldest son. She picked up his son from her mother’s house and crossed the Tumen safely with a broker’s help. Four of them crossed the River and followed the mountain range along Tumen. When they descended form the mountain, they say approaching headlights and ran away, panicking. Hyang-Mi’s mother fell in a pothole. She was eight months pregnant then and she began bleeding. Yet, they kept going in order to avoid capture. She continued to bleed for hours, her face growing pale. She must have foreseen her fate since she asked the guide to go to her town of residence and tell her husband, Kim Keum-San and Hyang-Mi that she couldn’t make it to them alive. When the guide came back with Kim Keum-San to the hiding place of the refugees, Hyang-Mi’s mother was long gone from this world. The Chinese man claimed that he made a proper grave for his dead wife, but that is false. After descending the mountain with other refugees, he never returned. The guide left to find Hyang-Mi’s father after Hyang-Mi’s mother started bleeding. However, she passed away around 2 am. Her eldest son spent all night next to his mother’s corpse with the guide only returning with Kim Keum-San early morning. Hyang-Mi’s Mother’s body was already cold and the Chinese man laid out her dead body in a densely populated shrub, and laid an old blanket over her. He gathered branches nearby and barely covered her corpse.  She came back to China out of love for her daughter but all she received was death. It was a sad but cold reality.


Chajang is very close to Helong. She could have been reunited with her daughter if only she had taken a few more steps. She could have witnessed the happy reunion of her children. What were her last thoughts as she took her dying breaths so close to the daughter she loved and yearned to see? How many pitiful and meaningless deaths like hers occurred across China? I took a great interest in those who escaped from North Korea with their children. After leading them to a shelter, I started inquiring into the educational system within North Korea. It had only been few months since Hyang-Mi’s brother; Myung-Il crossed the Tumen River. I asked him about the educational system and facilities within North Korea. He said that there were only one or two computers in the whole school and that students practiced typing with a wooden keyboard. All stationeries and writing utensils were precious and the school provided nothing for them. Many used newspapers to write on. It seemed like nothing had changed since I last left North Korea. There were only about five or six students in attendance per grade and they were often forced to carry coal at their teacher’s house or work in the fields. Students who missed school were only unable to attend because they had nothing to eat. In the fall, students were sent to the mountains with a rope. They would dig up trees by the roots and used the ropes to drag it down the mountain and back to the school. Myung-Il claimed to be sixteen but he was short and pale. I couldn’t imagine such a frail little boy starving and dragging trees down the mountain. As if he sensed my doubt, he widened his eyes and shouted that he was forced to carry trees from the mountain to the school as well.


There is a center for homeless children in Musan and in order to meet them I needed permission from the man in charge. I could only meet them if I was their parent. If I claimed to be a relative, then I had to prove it. The reason that children aren’t allowed to come into contact with outsiders is because they fear defectors taking the children away and helping them cross the Tumen River. It is a rescue center only in name. They hand out a handful of corn twice a day and make the bigger kids go out in the streets and steal money. The children would beg and steal in the streets, coming back into the center empty handed. Sometimes, the children would never come back. As a result, the center strictly regulated outside contact as well. Recently I learned from a conversation with a defector that there something called Sang-Mu was created in Heoryong on September 11, 2005. Kim Jung-Il wanted to crack down on children wandering in the streets. As the increasing number of wandering children was brought up as a social problem, there was a policy enacted to forcefully regulate wandering children. They nicknamed it as 9.11 since the policy was enacted on that day. This policy was overseen by a chief secretary in each village. In Heoryong, they had remodeled an old building behind a paper factory and looked after homeless children there. However, the facilities and the level of care in that center were atrocious. Everything operated in North Korea couldn’t even hold a candle to what we imagine a facility to be, but this center for homeless children didn’t even have the basics. I confirmed its existence several times with defectors coming out of Heoryong. They testified on its location and its services. Even if it was created under Kim Jung-Il’s orders, it was created under haste so food provision was scarce. There weren’t any people to professionally look after the children and the workers there stole the food and neglected the children. The situation was worse than what one could imagine. Heoryong was close to Tumen so I could easily get there from Yangi, and I had a growing interest in Heoryong due to the growing number of defectors coming from there. I tried to figure out just how I was going to approach the center for orphans and the situation regarding 9.11 Sang-mu. After about a year spent investigating, I decided to provide financial support for the center for homeless children.  However, the most important thing was considering who I was going to send into North Korea. In order to provide support for the center, I needed a responsible person who could keep their head in life or death situations. I knew a great man who could do the job. At the House of Love, he looked after the education and daily lives of defectors and had an abundance of knowledge, responsibility, boldness, and cleverness to avoid danger. It was help from people like him that allowed me to continue to work in China. He has already been in and out of North Korea several times, and loved and truly cared for young children. He had protected and taught Ok-Byul, Chul-Ho, Song-Lim, Dae-Song brothers and other children refugees. The next problem I had to consider was the financial aspect. I estimated that it would be about 700,000 to 800,000 won to provide bread for children in a trip into North Korea and we wouldn’t have to buy bread with our own money but ask for outside help. One could never trust North Koreans to provide proper aid, they would keep most of it for themselves. However, if I provided bread instead of rice or flour, it wouldn’t be kept long so I could trust that it would be given to the children and minimize the chances of it ending up in the hands of workers in the center. I planned to provide them with bread couple times a month and provide them with clothes couple times a year. It is easy to enter China from North Korea, but it would be difficult to approach the center. When I consulted with the man working with me, he said that he would try and consult with senators or people running the center to find an approachable route to the center. He said he would pretend to be a Chinese civilian providing aid for the center. It had been three years since I first heard about the center and I spent a lot of time looking into ways I could provide aid for it. I could send someone off with bread for the center by fall 2006.