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Jinhwa Choi
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2016-06-22 14:27:34
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Personal Information


Jinhwa Choi

Place of Birth

Chongjin, Hamgyongbuk-do Province

Refugee’s Details


Born in Chongjin, Hamgyongbuk-do Province, she is the second child out of five. As a very independent woman, when the shortage of food became severe in North Korea, she went to China upon hearing that she could make some money there, at the thought that she must do something to help the family. However, this decision has changed her life forever. She was repatriated to North Korea twice and crossed the river by the border three times. As she was held in prison in the State Political Security Department and the Jeungsan Concentration Camp, she was subjected all kinds of despicable inhumane tortures so there are no sound parts in her body. As his younger brother has taken the asylum in South Korea first, she managed to escape North Korea in 2012 along with her son, her sister and her daughter with her brother help and the Citizen’s Alliance for North Korean Human Rights. Now, she wants to repay everyone by focusing on raising her son well. Her story prior to obtain her freedom has been published in the 200th edition in June 2015 to the 203rd in September 2015.  



Started Business to Survive

Born as the second child of five living in North Hamgyong-do Province, our family was not wealthy but a typical one. After I graduated school, I became a farmer although I wanted to join to the military, due to financial reasons; I had to give up my dream. Regardless, even with farming, it wasn’t enough to support a family of seven so I started a business. I bought a lot of food when it was cheap, and sold it at high prices in markets. On days, when I sold a lot, I hired a wagon carrying almost a ton of it.

Running the business, there were a lot of offers for perspective marriages when I was 22. However, they all declined when they found out that I had a lot of siblings. For this, I blamed my parents for having a lot of children, and then my mother said sorry repeated each time, whereas my father relieved his stress only through drinking. Then, one man came and said he would marry me despite having a lot of siblings. Thankful, I married him even though I did not love him, but I realized that sympathy wasn’t love so I didn’t go back to my in- laws when I came home after three days of the marriage. Then on, I was known as the woman who came back from marriage in town so that my parents were stressed day by day because of the belief that the first child has to be successful in order for all the siblings to live well.

Five years later, at the age of 27, I had an arranged marriage. Unlike my expectation of having a perfect husband for me, he acted as he felt, and whenever he drank, he turned in to a tyrant. We had a son together, but I decided that we should go back to my parents’ house in order to survive as he became extremely violent whenever he drank every other day. Since I failed my first marriage, I was determined to show my parents living happily, but I had no choice. After I came back to my parents, there began a serious famine, which resulted three hundred deaths. Because I could not eat anything, it was luxury giving breast milk to my baby. Instead, I could only give him ground corn porridge, but he could not digest it and became extremely ill. However, he could go to hospital and recover with the help of my neighbor fortunately.

Heading to China due to the Shortage of Food

To overcome the vicious circle of poverty, I tried all sorts of things fruitlessly so I decided to go to China for my family. At first, I obstinately thought just to go there. However, thinking realistically, I concluded it would be better to be sold to a man, and then he would be able to help my family, instead of relying on my uncertain future. For the future of my family, I headed to China in late October, 2002, feeling sad of leaving my child behind in North Korea. However, seeing men who were waiting to buy North Korean women crossing the river by the border, I thought that I could not bear my life with them. Instead, I pleaded for a job, and luckily, I met a business man who exported dried brackens to South Korea. I was assured of safety, and began to work among the Han people of China. With my fast hands, I was good at work so I was able to earn more money than others. After three months, I could send 1,000 yuan in Chinese to my family in DPRK.

Repatriated to the North from China

As the thought of being able to send money to my family in the North, I was working with joy. However, one day in 2003, as I was cleaning my room, someone knocked on my door. When I opened the door unsuspecting, a number of people burst into my door. Then, I realized that it was a censorship in China. As I did not have an identification card, I was arrested, and sent to a police station in Longjin, China, and to the State Political Security Department in Hoeryong City, North Korea.

There, they searched all detainees’ bodies. Ten men and women were sent in a room with typists. The typists showed no respect regardless of ages laughing at us, and they made us take our clothes off. We had to hold our hands up high as for them to check if we hid any money under our breasts with bandages. Not only hands, but we also had to untie our hair, show our soles, and squat several times having our legs spread. Other prisoners stuffed money in their uterus or even swallowed it as it was very pressing. As for the people who stuffed money in their uterus, it fell out when we were made to do squats in front of the guards. Through the repeated search, they found and took all our money. The prison guards at the State Political Security Department in Hoeryong City made us sit a meter apart to watch us every moment when being investigated. Our meals were lees, leftover from making alcohol. It was hard for most of us to digest it as we were only used to eating rice in China. At first, I tried not to eat the food, but from what I heard from the people who came before me, I thought that I’d better eat. According to them, there were some women, who couldn’t see themselves eating it, so they had thrown their meals into the toilet. However, the guards found out about it so they investigated the offenders, and finally found those five women. They ordered these women to eat the lees that were from the toilet. Scared, three women ate the lees, but luckily, the other two did not have to eat it as an old lady pleaded the guards that it was all her fault, not teaching them properly and also begged them what would happen if humans ate this filth lees. Consequently, the other two, who did not eat it, were brutally battered instead. Upon listening to this, the others advised me to eat the lees even if I did not want to.

At the State Political Security Department in Hoeryong City, they made us cross our legs, putting our arms between the legs while having our heads shrugged in 45 degrees as well. As I had to stay in this posture from 5 A.M to 10 P.M, my ankles had rotted. Because I was caught for staying illegally in China, I did not get harsh treatment as much at the State Political Security Department. Additionally, I was allowed to live as those who stayed in China received less severe punishments under the order of Kim, Jong-il, the 2nd General Secretary of the Worker’s Party of Korea from October 8, 1997- December 17, 2011. Afterwards, I was sent to an assembly center in Chongjin City. There, they said if I gave them a wrist watch worth 300 Chinese Yuan, they would treat me well so I gave the watch. Therefore, instead of carrying logs, I was made to check attendance. Luckily, after a few days, I got into contact with my father, and was able to get out of the assembly center with much difficulty. 

Getting Caught Again on the Way to South Korea  

When I got home, I realized that nothing got better. My head was filled with worries, thinking about how to earn money for the family. Once again, I made up my mind to go to China. After one or two months of rest, I crossed the river by the border again in 2004. Staying in China, I got in touch with my younger brother in South Korea, who had been defected earlier, by accident. He suggested for me to defect to South Korea, but I couldn’t get my son off my mind in the North. Regardless, he persistently persuaded me that something went wrong with me while in China; more harm would go to my son. He suggested me to go to South Korea first, and then bring my son later. In the end, I decided to go to South Korea through Mongolia.

With eight others, I met a broker at Yanji, and moved to Changchun, China. Traveling for a whole day, we arrived at the three-section barbed wire fences, the border of Mongolia. The broker told us to walk on the right of the Big Dipper for an hour to find the Mongolian border. He made us bring only sneakers, water, and a few pastries, warned us to move only at night, and left. We could not move during the day as detectors were on so we only moved at night, but couldn’t find the Mongolian border. We walked for many days, but only arrived at the same point over and over again. When the sun came up, we had to hide in grass only 60 cm tall.

After wandering for three days searching for the Mongolian border, we ran out of water and food. Even worse, it started to rain so we decided to ask for help in China. We went back to China with the help of a member who could speak Chinese, and arrived at a village to ask for help. However, since we could not speak Chinese well with our rugged clothing, they reported us to the police, and we were arrested on the spot. We wanted to escape, but it was impossible. Consequently, we thought the only way for us to go to South Korea was by fasting; all eight of us, put into action. The Chinese police tried to make us eat by reasoning that we needed to eat if we wanted to go to South Korea, but I insisted otherwise. Among us, there were an eight-year-old and ten-year-old boys, and they also took part in it. On the seventh day of fasting, I read a blurry note written on the wall reading, “Do not trust the Chinese. Failed fasting on the 11th day.” I made up my mind that fasting would not work, and decided to change the method by appealing to send us to South Korea by lying on the road when we were being transported.

On the next day, they told us to pack our bags that would send us to South Korea finally. Since there was a lot of sheep on our way, we thought we were moving to Mongolia and everyone was a full of excitements and joy. After an hour of travelling, they lied that there would be a press conference. With my short estimation, I thought that there would also be press from South Korea and I wanted to tell them the truth and ask for help.

While waiting in a small room, they asked us if we had any last words. One member cursed angrily about how corrupted Kim, Jong-Il and Kim, Il-sung are; only thinking of enlarging their wealth while their people are dying. While everyone was imagining the joy of finally reaching the South Korean land, the one who spoke up was sent to another room. It turned out that they had been feeding us lies for the sake of making their work easier while transferring us. I finally realized that everything was a red lie after I was sent to the Tumen border. There, we were locked up in Room 14 for two months in the prison for trying to escape to South Korea, and to Room 7 where I was called out often. The other members, who saw this, misunderstood that I was being sexually assaulted. However, the Chinese actually were asking me about my life in North Korea and they also told me the fact that Kim, JongIl ordered all prisoners who got caught escaping to South Korea were to be all executed. The investigators called me out often as they thought it would be better to be out than stuffed in the prison cell because we had to stay there until our broker was caught. The other members, who did not know all about this, told different stories to the authorities in the North so I was investigated as being a prostitute. The Tumen Prison did not torture us unlike North Korean ones. Rather, they waited for us outside our prison cell when we were singing and dancing to console ourselves.

Back in North Korea

We were sent back to Onseong Prison in North Korea on November 24. All of our belongings were stolen, and 33 people had to confine in a room about the size of 23 m2. All we had as a meal were three strands of old noodles with a soup with two pieces of radish. One day, when all prisoners were assembled, I saw one of our members, who had two sons, battered so terribly that her green pants turned red in blood. At the start of investigation, they threatened us that we would be beaten to death if we didn’t answer their questions properly. First, they asked me who gave me the idea to escape to South Korea. In response, I claimed that I went to China in order to earn money, and I did not know that the broker tried to sell me to South Korea. I was battered for a few days, but I endured the beating thinking of my family. Even with days of battering, the truth was not revealed. Then, they started the investigation all over again. During the second investigation, I told them that I went to China to buy medicine for my son who had a thyroid cancer, and further explained that a Chinese doctor would not give me any medicine without a patient, so I decided to earn some money before I went back to North Korea. However, on my way of finding a job, I was sold to South Korea, not even realizing, and told them that I only realized it when I reached Changchun. I ended my investigation defending that I wanted to come back to North Korea but I was afraid of being caught and could not speak the language. Additionally, I was informed that I could get an ID from South Korea in six months so I was planning to come back to North Korea and confess everything after getting the citizenship. The investigators did not believe me and said that they would investigate again, but I insisted on my stand and repeated the same things over and over.

The next day, a new investigator came and told me to confess everything frankly that I could leave, but I pleaded him that I was telling the truth. Additionally, he asked me whether I have watched any porno or South Korean dramas, and what I ate in China and the North Korean borders. I answered the new investigator that nothing came into mind but money. Luckily, he believed me so I was able to leave the State Political Security Department in Hoeryong City and be locked up in a detention center for a preliminary hearing. In a small room of 23m2, there were a full of people with thousands and millions of fleas and lice. Luckily, my mother found out that I was in the detention center, so from that time on, she brought me rice, eggs, and more, which helped me from starving.  

After the preliminary merely as a formality, I was to be sent to the prosecution along with my paperwork. At the first trial, I claimed that I did not know I was being sent to South Korea falsely so they believed and sent me over to a labor camp for two years. However, at the appellate court, they concluded that I failed to return to North Korea even though I knew I was heading to South Korea, and sentenced to three years of imprisonment. I was to be originally imprisoned in Oro, Hannam-do Province, but unfortunately I was sent to the first Concentration Camp in Kaechon, and then Jeungsan, Pyeongnam-do, Province. The First Concentration Camp was a factory which made industrial products such as guns and leather wallets. There, dead bodies were cremated into ashes with high-voltage electricity because there was nowhere to bury them. Meanwhile, no electricity was given to regular people.

Being Sent to Another Concentration Camp in Jeungsan City

After a week at the Kaechon Concentration Camp, I was moved to Jeungsan, Pyeongnam-do, Province. There was this black writing on red bricks, “Do Not Try to Escape. It Is the Way to Destruction.” All prisoners had their head shaven and put a white towel on it. I was assigned to the second unit of the first team. Like all other prisoners, I survive on the poor quality of rice as rations. Because I could not contact my mother, I could not eat well for a long time. People, who were distributing food, gave more to their acquaintances. Regardless, even the only meal they gave was this kind of rice and sandy soup.

Struggling every day, I even got an athlete’s foot. Thinking if I’d better cut off this foot and drown myself, I would be able to put a stop to this harsh labor, I was at the verge of putting this into action, but my mother came to see me with taffy made of corn flour so I was saved at the last moment. Once, I contracted erysipelas, which would decay my bones. Luckily, the leader of my unit had penicillin so I could be cured as my mother would pay for the medicine with her food for the period. In order for my mother to see me, it cost about 200,000 to 300,000 North Korean won, which was enough money for a family to live for a year. After she found out where I was, she came to see me twice a month, bringing food with her. My mother saved all the money I sent back to North Korea when I was in China, and used it all to bring me while I was in the prison. The hard work I had done in China saved me again. Unlike the First Concentration Camp in Kaechon, the Jeungsan Camp buried dead bodies in a mountain. A mountain keeper buried those, and prevented people from drinking nearby water as the rotten bodies contaminated it. Just like the First Concentration Camp in Kaechon, there was a serious lack of food. I stole lunch from guards, and ate it. If I was caught eating, I was battered very badly, but I kept on stuffing food into my mouth. Withstanding the hard times for the three years, I could come back home in January of 2008, not looking different from a dead body. That was the end of my hard journey from the State Political Security Department in 2004 to the concentration camp in Jeungsan in 2008.

Crossing the Border for the Third Time with My Son

Times did go by, but nothing was better so I decided to escape from North Korea again as I realized there would be no hope but just like the past. With my younger sister and son, I crossed the river again on the freezing winter of 2010, holding his tiny hand. After we reached China, my younger sister was sold to a Chinese man but I was not sold as I had a son with me. Because I was not sold for a long time, a broker suggested for my son and I to be sold separately, and meet later by sharing contact numbers. However, upon hearing this, my son rejected the whole idea of being separated from me so I decided to stay with him.

For a long time, my son and I were not sold to anybody, but then we were being bought by a Chinese family. I felt miserable and resentful that we were sold to a pathetic man, but I tried to stay positively as he took my son, too. At night, I put more layers of clothes and stayed up all night next to my son. However, if my husband came home fully drunk, he would call up for a fight. Then, my son tried to stop the fight or even fight the man strong enough to break the furniture at home. Watching these highly-charged fights, the other family members sold us back to the broker. Then, the broker threatened me to sell to a bar, and my son was as a foster son. Meanwhile, the translator, who helped communicate with the broker, told me that I must slept with him in order to be sold to another person, and urged me to spend a night with him. At the first time, I pretended that I was sick, and the next time, I acted as if I was on a period by finding someone else’s pad in toilet. Afterwards, I was sold to a divorced man, who graduated Beijing University and got to live in a luxurious house safely conditions. However, the man’s son kept on telling mine, that no matter how smart mine was he would be sent back North Korea if he got reported the police. My son was terribly stressed by the boy’s mean words. Looking at all the situation, I thought that it was urgent to reach South Korea as fast as I could, but my sister weighed me down heavily as I didn’t know where she was at. Nobody helped me find my younger sister as they thought I would run away after finding her. People, who were close to me, told me that they would only give me her number after she had a baby with her Chinese husband. Meanwhile, my sister was also looking for us, and my mother-in-law met the broker at a market who lived near, and could finally get in contact with her. Prior to that, I have gotten touch with my younger brother, who arrived in South Korea, in 2011. As my health was very poor, he told me to come to South Korea first, but fortunately, as I was able to get into contact with my younger sister, we all decided to go South Korea and put into action.

To South Korea

Before our departure, my younger brother made contact with the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, a NGO in South Korea, and told us there was nothing to worry about. Trusting my brother, we left China and went through Laos and Thailand, and were finally able to reach South Korea, the land of freedom. When we were leaving to Laos from China, my younger sister had a six-month-old baby, and my son and I had loads of baggage on our backs. As we were going over a mountain, my legs became numb. Though I took medicine repeated, but my unwilling legs slowed down the whole party. My son helped me walk, or even carried me on his back repeatedly, so our six hour journey was completed in twelve hours. Out of China and reaching Laos, rather than feeling safe, I was very much concerned if we would be able to make to South Korea, so I couldnt smile and just wanted to leave there as soon as possible. On that day, we were able to reach Thailand. As I looked up at the sky and breathed in fresh air, I was thankful that I was alive.

After the perilous journey, finally, I could reach South Korea in December of 2012, my dream land. When I took a first step at the Incheon International Airport, instead of feeling it was clean, I felt like everything in front of my eyes was just a dream. The best thing about being in South Korea was that I could live with dignity. On my way to the National Intelligence Service (NIS) on bus, I was wondering how long I would be held there the most. However, after spending time in Hanawon, a resettlement education center for newly arrived NK defectors, and starting my life here, I think once a while that it was good being at the NIS. At first, I wanted to live free, but it was very difficult as things didn’t really work out as I intended. Living in the South was very different from the North; as I had no proper education being in the total unfamiliar culture, there was no job for me, except working at a restaurant. Moreover, because I was battered brutally at the prisons in the North, I need to get treatments at hospital every day so my days are consumed by constant difficulty. Regardless, coming in South Korea is the best thing happened to my life as I am fairly compensated for my honest work and people are able to foster their dreams for the future, not to mention so many nice to people to rely on. The most importantly, all my siblings are here together, and my son enjoys going to high school, dreaming to be an athlete and adjusting well. I would like to expression my uttermost appreciation through my son when he grows up. Thank you.