224. The New Underground Railroad
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  Name : WSJ Date : 2017-10-13 오후 2:14:48



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The New Underground Railroad
"A North Korean like you is easier to kill than a chicken."

Friday, May 12, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

Old habits die hard--especially those whose disregard could mean death. So it is understandable that the North Korean refugees with whom I met this week set strict ground rules for our interview: no names, no photographs, no indication of their location in the U.S., and no identifying details of the Southeast Asian nation whose government risked the ire of China to permit them to depart for asylum in this country after they sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy there.

Hannah and Naomi are the noms de liberte of the women who were willing to savor a taste of their new freedom by meeting an American journalist. Even so, they remain fearful for the safety of the families they have left behind in North Korea. The relatives of defectors can simply disappear--sent to the gulag or worse. North Korea has many spies, says Naomi, through an interpreter. Even, it went unstated, in this country.

The women's new names were bestowed on them by Chun Ki-won, the South Korean pastor whose underground railroad led them, and four others, thousands of miles across China to sanctuary in Southeast Asia this spring. No one knows how many North Korean refugees are hiding in northeast China. Tens of thousands for sure, and estimates range as high as several hundred thousand. Beijing, in violation of its treaty obligations, refuses to allow the United Nations High Commission on Refugees to help--or even to interview them.

Pastor Chun is a man of miracles, the women say. Their own particular miracle is to have stepped off a plane in this country late last Friday, the first refugees to enter the U.S. under asylum rules set up under the 2004 North Korean Human Rights Act.

Naomi, Hannah and the four compatriots who traveled with them had spent years in virtual servitude in northeast China, along the North Korean border.

Hannah and Naomi are willing to share their stories, but first they wish to make a statement. Hannah settles herself in her chair, opens a small notebook, and reads in Korean the words she has prepared: Before we begin this interview, I want to thank God for bringing us to this land of dreams. We sincerely thank President George Bush and the American government for letting us enter as refugees. She bows slightly, closes her notebook, and prepares to relive her ordeal.

My husband was an officer in the army, she begins, and I was a teacher. (Hannah, like Naomi, needs an interpreter.) They had a daughter together, who is now 14. In 2003--she is careful not to give a more precise date--her husband was seriously injured in a military exercise that left him unable to work. Without his salary, the family had difficulty making ends meet, so when the mother of one of Hannah's students offered her 300 won (about $136) to travel with her to a town along the Chinese border to pick up the fabric she used in her clothing business, Hannah accepted the job.

At the North Korean border town, the women were invited to dinner at the home of the middleman who was selling them the fabric. Halfway through the meal, Hannah fell asleep--there was a narcotic in the food--and she woke up later in a dark basement. “I was tied up,” she says, “but I could hear my friend say, 'Teacher, I think we've been sold.'” They were no longer in North Korea, but in China.

“I was from Pyongyang,” Hannah says. “I had absolutely no idea of the things that happen around the border.... How can this happen? How can such an event occur in this world?... What would happen to my family, my child?... I felt like I was living in hell.” She was soon sold to a farmer for 20,000 Chinese yuan, or $2,500.

North Korean “brides” are prized in China, where there is a shortage of young women thanks to Beijing's one-child policy, Chinese families' preference for sons, and the government's blind eye toward rampant female infanticide. In northeast China, where many ethnic Koreans live, North Korean women are “known to be polite and clean,” says Hannah. “Young Chinese women from rural areas marry into the cities,” adds Naomi. “It's difficult to find young women in the countryside.”

A North Korean in China--even one who is there against her own volition--quickly learns that there is a worse fate than being sold into sexual slavery: being captured by the Chinese authorities and repatriated. It is a crime to leave the North, and Koreans who are sent back end up in prison camps or worse. “I had no choice but to depend on the man” who bought her, Hannah says. But “for the first time in my life, I felt like a sinner, because I had a family in North Korea and I was living with this man.”

Hannah's new "husband" beat her--once breaking her breastbone. He would threaten to kill her or turn her over to the police. “North Koreans like you are easier to kill than a chicken,” he once told her. Hannah soon found herself pregnant, praying that her husband's abuse would cease once she gave him a child.

His behavior did not improve after the birth of their daughter, leading Hannah to consider suicide. But “I have two children, one in North Korea, one in China.... How sad my daughters would be to know that they didn't have a mother. I decided I had to live for my daughters.”

That led to the decision to run away from her Chinese husband. He “had no other children, and he really did love the child, and he treated her well.” She spoke to her mother-in-law and persuaded her to take care of her daughter until she came back. “So I left when my daughter was asleep.” A missionary helped Hannah get to Beijing, where she connected with the underground railroad. It was more difficult to blend in in Beijing, where there were few ethnic Koreans, and Hannah was afraid she would be captured. “It's unspeakable, the fear.”

Naomi has sat quietly during Hannah's story, leaning from her seat only to touch Hannah gently on the arm when she breaks down in talking about her daughters. Now she starts to speak, in a voice so soft that I have to lean across the table to hear her.

“From 1994 there was a famine and it became very difficult to eat,” she begins. She lived with her parents and brother in a city near the Chinese border. “Even though we all had jobs we did not get paid... and we had to pay the government [a tax] for development projects.”

Naomi's father had been born in China, and in 1998, with the family in debt and still struggling for food, she decided to see if she could find her relatives there and ask for help. She was befriended by a Chinese traveling salesman, who offered to guide her to her relatives' address. She left in the middle of the night. “I didn't want my parents to know I was leaving,” she says. “I thought I would go for a few days and come back.”

The merchant led her across the Tumen River to an apartment in a city on the Chinese side. It was then that she realized that the wares her salesman-friend sold were human--and female. She was given to a farmer, exchanged for the Korean “wife” he had purchased a month earlier, but who had turned out to be ill. “The day after I arrived, a neighbor reported me so five or six security people came to the house. I was so frightened and confused.” The family paid a 3,000-yuan fine for the authorities to pretend she wasn't there.

Naomi spent the next three years in hard farm labor, suffering a back injury so severe that she couldn't walk for nearly a year. The family refused to get medical treatment for her because they were afraid someone would find out they were harboring an illegal refugee. After she did not become pregnant, the family eventually allowed her to leave to search for her relatives. When she finally found them, they ordered her to marry a man they picked out for her. Six months later she became pregnant.

“When I was eight months pregnant, I was captured by the Chinese,” she says. “Somebody from my neighborhood reported me.... [The Chinese] pay people to report North Koreans.” Her relatives paid the fine, but seven months later, when her son was still nursing, she was captured again. This time she was sent back to North Korea. Her son was wrenched from her.

She spent the next period of her life in a succession of prison camps. “I went into the Musan Security Center. There if you even spoke a word, they would make you hold out your hands and beat you with a large wooden stick.” She did farm work in another camp. It was harvest season. “You start at 4 o'clock in the morning and work until 10 or 11 at night.” When the guards moved prisoners from camp to camp, “they would use shoelaces to tie our thumbs together to the thumbs of the person next to us so tightly that our thumbs would swell up.”

Naomi eventually was returned to a detention facility in her hometown, where she was required to write a confession. “One day they took me to a big public event and we were forced to read our confessions to the crowds,” she recalls. “There were several hundred people there. The authorities said, 'This is what happens to people who go to China.'”

After she was released, she sneaked back in to China. “I had to go because of my son,” she says. It was too dangerous to stay in the same town, so she tied her son on her back and moved to another city with her husband. Fearing discovery--and with a husband who kept threatening to report her--she switched jobs constantly. She worked as a cook, as an Internet chat girl, and even danced nude for a Webcast.

In 2004, when listening to the Voice of America--Naomi confidently pronounces the letters “V-O-A” in English--she learned about Pastor Chun's underground railroad. She used the Internet to find his organization's fax number and sent him a plea for help.

Her mother-in-law agreed to take care of her son, and Naomi decided to make a run for it.

Hannah is 36 and Naomi 34. Their eyebrows are plucked, their hair is stylishly straight, and they are dressed in cropped pants and high-heeled slides--styles as popular in East Asia as they are in this country. The only sign that they might not be from here is their lack of jewelry--with the exception of the cross Hannah wears on a chain around her neck.

Our interview over, the women relax and begin to talk about their first few days in America. “It's completely different from what we learned. It is difficult to accept that there is a world like this,” Hannah says. “They [the North Korean government] teach us that America is a country that shouldn't be allowed to exist.” “When we were in China,” Naomi says, “we always had to hide. Now we don't feel that way anymore.”

“We still do feel lonely,” says Hannah, “but my heart feels free.”

Ms. Kirkpatrick is a deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.