They were brought together on a cold November morning by Beijing’s recent decision to send at least 500 North Korean escapees back to their homeland.
Gathered in front of the gates of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, many were friends and relatives of those who have been forcibly repatriated in years past, or who had experienced the ordeal themselves.
Those sent back on Oct. 9 would face almost certain punishment – torture, labor camp, sexual violence and even death, warned Human Rights Watch.
Heo Young-hak is an escapee who told RFA Korean that his wife was forcibly repatriated by China in December 2019. She is now a political prisoner, he said.
“Honestly, my wife was someone who didn’t know anything about violating the law in North Korea,” said Heo, visiting the United States as a member of the Emergency Committee on the Forced Repatriation of North Korean Escapees, a South Korea-based group that demonstrated at various locations in Washington and at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
“She was such a nice woman,” said Heo. “But she became a political prisoner…a political prisoner.”
And he doesn’t know if she’s dead or alive.
His wife, Choi Sun Hwa, had fled North Korea to be reunited with him and their daughter, as they had escaped to China a month before her.
“You know what a political prisoner is, right? You become a political prisoner when you betray your country or engage in activities that are considered treasonous,” he said. “After a year of interrogation and torture, she was eventually sent to a political prison camp, and now there is no way to confirm whether she is alive or dead,” he said.
For Heo, China’s insistence on repatriating escaped North Koreans is “tantamount to genocide.”
“Once repatriated to North Korea, 80-90% of individuals do not survive,” he said. “There is no way to confirm the status of those repatriated, but the Chinese government’s forced repatriation to North Korea continues. I can only wish that there are no more victims.”
‘Illegal displaced persons’
Critics of Beijing’s policy of returning North Koreans found to have entered the country without authorization say that China is not living up to its agreements to protect refugees.
Though the exact figure of North Koreans who have escaped to China are not known, estimates range from the tens of thousands to more than 100,000.
China continues to justify forced repatriation by claiming that North Korean escapees in China are “illegal displaced persons” rather than refugees.
Beijing therefore claims it must return the North Koreans to their homeland because it is bound by two agreements with Pyongyang, the 1960 PRC-DPRK Escaped Criminals Reciprocal Extradition Treaty and the 1986 Mutual Cooperation Protocol for the Work of Maintaining National Security and Social Order and the Border Areas.
One of the other protesters that morning had herself been repatriated to North Korea twice.
“I cannot help but feel enraged as I stand in front of the Chinese Embassy,” said Ji Hanna, who first fled to China in 2010.
Her husband had died in 1996 in the thick of the so-called Arduous March, the famine that resulted from the collapse of the North Korean economy which had been over-reliant on Soviet aid. By some estimates, more than 2 million people, or about 10% of the population, died between 1994 and 1998.
In such dire times, Ji had been trying to provide for her two young sons by conducting illegal trading with contacts in China. She was caught and sentenced to disciplinary labor five times.
In November 2009, the North Korean government issued new currency and revalued the old one such that it made the savings of the common people worth about 1% what it had been.
This was the last straw for Ji, who made the decision to go to China to earn money, then return to North Korea to get her children out.
But she was caught by Chinese police and sent back in 2011. She attempted to escape again but the Chinese border force caught her and sent her back again.
While in a North Korean prison, she said she saw people dying from malnutrition every day, and her only food was the uneaten remnants from soldiers’ meals.
She escaped again and resettled in South Korea in 2016, where she lives with her two sons.
But she says she will never forget the torture and suffering during and after her repatriation. Her legs are scarred, from being whipped with a stiff leather belt daily, and she suffers from severe neck pain from injuries she suffered while incarcerated.
“We didn’t commit any major crimes in China. We just tried to find a way to survive and come to South Korea,” said Ji. “How unjust and heartbreaking it is.”
“I managed to survive from the brink of death and succeeded in escaping from North Korea on my third attempt and came to South Korea. I don’t even know if the other people are dead or alive.”
Shin Gum-sil was not at the embassy on Nov. 8, but her cousin Jang Se-yul was, and and he told RFA that Shin had been trafficked when she escaped North Korea in January 2020, right before the whole country was locked down at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While in China, Shin fell into the hands of traffickers who sold her to an elderly Chinese man to be his wife. She became pregnant, and in April 2020, and in shock she swallowed a handful of cold medicine pills. (Jang did not specify if this was an attempt by Shin to terminate the pregnancy or to end her life.)
From the overdose, Shin experienced abdominal pain, soon discharged blood, and was taken to the hospital emergency room.
“Because she was losing so much blood her husband’s parents insisted on going to a big hospital, saying, ‘Despite the risks, we have to save her life,’” said Jang. “When you go to a big hospital, you have to check in, but she didn’t have any identification. So, after waiting until the bleeding stopped, the Chinese police took her away.”
Shin was then interrogated for about three months and sent to a labor prison camp for more than six months. This all occurred in China as the border between North Korea and China remained closed for the duration of the pandemic.
“I haven’t heard from my cousin in three years, so I asked her Chinese husband and he said she was sick and in the hospital, so I thought she was still hospitalized,” said Jang.
But this September, he got a call from Shin, who said was in the Baishan Detention Center in China.
Jang said his heart sank when he heard the news in October that Shin had been among the 500 escapees handed over to the North Korean Ministry of State Security.
He was worried for her because his own status as an escapee who resettled in the South might result in her receiving harsher punishment.
“Because I settled in South Korea, the North Korean Ministry of State Security will investigate and conclude that my cousin’s final plan was to go to South Korea,” he said. “And there is a high possibility that she will be put in a political prison camp on charges of treason against the homeland.”
He called on the international community to address the issue.
“When North Korean escapees are forcibly repatriated to North Korea, they are sent to political prisons where they cannot escape alive,” said Jang. “Despite our relentless efforts, China continues to act recklessly. We earnestly hope that the United States and the international community will intervene to prevent this kind of tragedy.”
Peter Jung, the head of the South Korea-based rights group Justice for North Korea, said the group is trying to spread the word that China, a permanent member of the U.N., is committing crimes against humanity by forcibly repatriating North Koreans.
“China was clearly cited in the report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea 10 years ago for this horrendous crime against humanity,” he said. “The report urged that Chinese authorities contact and protect North Korean escapees in cooperation with the UN refugee agency and allow them to go to the country of their choice.”
North Korean escapees in China face many difficulties due to their lack of legal status in China.
One of the protesters on Nov. 8 explained how her sister-in-law could not receive legal services while incarcerated by Chinese authorities because she wasn’t legally married to the Chinese man she had been living with as his wife.
Woo Young-bok is relatively famous for her role as the protagonist of “Beyond Utopia,” an award-winning documentary about how North Koreans who escape to China eventually find their way to South Korea.
While Woo was able to get out of North Korea in 2020 and resettle in the South, her sister Choi Soon Ae was among the 500 North Koreans repatriated in October, she said.
Choi had left North Korea in 2013 with her family and lived in China for two years. Her husband and daughter were able to resettle in South Korea, but she was trafficked and sold to a Chinese man.
Eventually, the Chinese police received an anonymous tipoff about Choi’s situation, and she was arrested and sent to a prison for two years in Changchun, in China’s northeastern province of Jilin.
Choi’s daughter, who now lives in South Korea, can only anxiously wait for news about her mother’s well-being, Woo said.
In fact, Soon Ae’s daughter called her mother to try to bring her to South Korea,” she said. “But Soon Ae said it’s impossible because she was under ‘repatriation standby.’”
According to Woo, the family pleaded with her Chinese husband to get her out of prison so that she would not be sent back.
“However, he said, ‘If she was on the family register, I would confidently claim to be her husband, but I can’t because she is not registered as a member of my family,’” said Woo.
Woo said women make up the majority of North Korean escapees in China and are living insecure lives. She repeatedly urged that the international community pay more attention to their plight.
“Even people who have not yet been sent back to North Korea are anxious and sobbing over the thought [of repatriation],” she said. “The reason we visited the U.S is because the world must now be aware of China’s crimes against humanity. [The situation] is truly heartbreaking.”
Translated by Leejin J. Chung. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.