To South Korea, From North Korea via China
In her late thirties, SONG Sun-hee fled from North Korea into China in 1997, but was caught twice by the Chinese police and repatriated to North Korea. She escaped again to China and arrived in South Korea in May 2003.
Q: Where is your birthplace?
A: I’m from Hoekyung, North Ham-kyung province.
Q: What did you do in North Korea?
A: I was a farmer, I worked really hard. Look at how thick and rough my hands are. there’s no work I’m afraid of.
Q: Are any members of your family left back in North Korea?
A: My mother, who’s 65 this year is still in North Korea. She is coming to China this February and I gave her some Chinese money I had, and that was the last time I saw her.
Q: How was your mother’s condition?
A: She was fairly healthy. I had thought I take on after her, but I’m not so fit these days.
Q: And what about your father?
A: In 1995, I think…He passed away unable to endure, during the most difficult days.
Q: What about other members of the family?
A: I have one brother and two younger sisters. My sisters are in China and my brother is in South Korea.
Q: What was your life like in the North?
A: Very exhausting. We had to eat watery porridge with grass that we’d pull out from barren ground. People had blackened faces, with nothing but skin and bones. There are about three thousand households in Heokyung. Nevertheless, in August 1997, seventeen people died out each day, this continued for a long time. There weren’t enough coffins to place the dead bodies, so they were just buried wrapped in sacks, it was such a hard time. South Koreans won’t be able to understand.
Q: Are you married?
A: My husband was sick and died in 1996, I had a child, but he had pneumonia due to malnutrition I was unable to find any medicine he also died in 1996. It still hurts to think about it… even more when I see a child my son’s age…he died all because of lack of food…I still have lingering attachments to my child.
Q: Have you ever witnessed a public execution?
A: Yes, many times before escaping from the North. In one of the cases, someone stole money and stabbed the person who discovered the scene of the crime. The person stabbed was not killed and the burglar was caught, he was then executed in public. In another case, eight friends got together to steal six hundred kilograms of copper. They tried to sell the copper they stole with no luck, and even worse, they got caught by the security officers. Two of them were executed before a firing squad, and the rest of them were sent in for education, one of them was my younger brother’s friend. A post is set up on the grounds onto which the prisoners are tied, the officers shoot three times each. Dead bodies in poor conditions are just wrapped up in sacks and taken somewhere in cars, it’s simply appalling.
Q: When did you escape from North Korea?
A: In September 1997. After my father passed away and my two younger sisters had already escaped to China. It was just too hard to endure in North Korea, so I escaped by myself with my mother left behind.
Q: Who in North Korea helped you escape?
A: An older woman whom I promised to pay some money helped me out of North Korea. As I arrived in China, some Korean-Chinese men were already waiting for me to take me to the countryside to be sold.
Q: What was life like there?
A: The conditions of living and where North Korean women live after they are sold to in China are terrible. However, the man I lived with was a man with a good hear, but I still had to work restless. Last year I had a case of terrible discharge of blood I went to the hospital to find out about extra uterine pregnancy and had to quickly go into surgery. Although I went through a major operation, I couldn’t even take a day off to recover, and had to go out to the fields to work straight away. I was quite sure about my health before, but now I’m not feeling well since then. Even nowadays my body gets tired so easily, I can’t even sleep very well.
Q: Have you ever been caught by the Chinese police?
A: Yes, twice, in the summer of 1999 and winter of 2000. We were reported and caught in our homes then repatriated. My younger sister in China was also caught four times last year but survived by risking her life jumping out of the train each time. How worried I am about my sisters…I really hope they can find safety for once.
Q: What kinds of punishments do you undergo when you are repatriated?
A: I was sent to Hoeryung twice, there is a facility for interrogating defectors then I was sent to labor training camps. Those repatriated to Hoeryung first go through blood tests. If you are found to be pregnant you are forced to have an abortion. I’ve seen many women treated in unbelievably appalling ways.
Q: Can you describe the conditions and life in the labor training centers?
A: We work from five in the morning to dusk, after work we attend ‘enlightenment’ mental educational classes. In the summer, we work till late hours, because the sun sets late in the evening. Even though the working hours are shortened in winter, the enlightenment classes are longer, we’d rather work than attend the classes.
All we eat is steamed crude corn bits. They are served in those shallow North Korean bowls, only half full, the corn porridge is so watery it blows away. In the mouth they are so rough it’s hard to swallow. If we don’t eat, we know we’d starve to death, so we just try to eat what’s given. The soup provided is just like salty water, it’s so burdensome.
Q: When did you say you escaped again?
A: In 1999 and 2000, both in one-month periods from the labor detention centers, I thought I’d just die there.
Q: Why did you decide to come to South Korea?
A: I was caught and repatriated twice, went through such a hard time thinking that I’d just die like this. Again last year I was reported in and my husband was fined 2,000 yuan for not taking me in instead. But my husband can’t afford to pay for me all the time, and I don’t have a citizenship identification card…. my status in China is not secure at all, and it’s hard to live in such insecurity. I didn’t have any way out. So, I decided to leave for Korea.
Q: Via which country were you able to come to South Korea?
A: I crossed the Mongolian border in March 2003. I had trouble finding my way around and it was so unbearably cold. My toe nails all fell off because of frostbites while crossing the borders. I finally have new toenails growing now.
Q: What are your plans from now on?
A: Whether I make a good living or not, I believe will depend on me. I hear that defectors don’t live so well, but I don’t understand why, I’ll work hard. I’m ready to do anything to make a living.