North Korean Refugee Stories: Meet Yoon Suk
Yoon Suk has vivid, happy memories of growing up in North Korea. She was raised during a time when state-socialism was relatively functioning, and the government could provide basic necessities to its citizens. She remembers wearing beautiful nylon (a highly-sought after fabric back in the earlier days of North Korea) uniforms with bows and red, patent-leather shoes to school. She also had a passion for the arts and performed frequently on stage. But as she grew older, the shine in her shoes began to fade and the hunger in her belly began to grow.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea lost crucial sources of subsidized trade and aid and the North Korean economy crashed. It was during this time that Yoon Suk got married, but what should have been a happy time in her life ended up being far from it. The regime’s mismanaged agricultural and environmental policies were confounded by harsh weather, plunging the country into a severe famine that lasted for years. Yoon Suk and her husband struggled to survive on the meager rations they received—and they were not alone. During this period, an estimated one million people died from starvation, while many of those who survived suffered immensely.
Yoon Suk, knowing that she had to do something to keep her family alive during the most difficult years of the “Arduous March,” turned to the jangmadang—small, illegal markets where people sold and traded anything they could for food. Yoon Suk was like many North Korean women in this new reality, abandoning her traditional role for market activities. Unfortunately, running her modest merchant business was more challenging than she had anticipated and she struggled to keep it afloat. As the situation grew worse, she discontinued her business and looked for other ways to support her family, which had grown by two with the birth of her sons. It was during this time that she learned that life might be better in booming China.
As recently as three decades ago, Chinese people were on average poorer than their North Korean neighbors. But China’s economic reforms have produced wealth and opportunities that are the envy of nearly all North Koreans today. Since North Korea’s economic collapse, which lead to unprecedented cross-border movement and inflows of Chinese goods and media, North Koreans have gained a painful awareness of just how far their formerly impoverished Chinese neighbors have come.
But it’s extremely risky for North Koreans to escape their country. The North Korean regime makes it illegal to leave without explicit permission and if Yoon Suk was caught trying to escape, or caught in China and sent back, she would be punished severely. Yet, the opportunity was too great to pass up and she fled for the first time in the mid-2000s.
Once she arrived, alone in a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language, Yoon Suk was sold to a Chinese man as his bride. China’s lack of marriageable women, particularly in rural areas of the northeast, creates high demand for female North Korean refugees like Yoon Suk. Without legal status and no protection from the authorities, these women are often kidnapped by sex traffickers and sold, sometimes for as little as $200.
Even though she was now living with a Chinese man, Yoon Suk still wasn’t safe from the watchful eye of the Chinese authorities. North Korean refugees’ well-founded fear of persecution if repatriated means that they should be protected under international refugee law. However, the Chinese government labels them as “economic migrants,” so they can forcibly send them back, as per their agreement with the North Korean regime. Yoon Suk was caught by Chinese police not even a month after arriving and was forcibly repatriated back to North Korea. There, the authorities sent her to a prison camp, where she was abused, beaten, and starved.
After all she had gone through, Yoon Suk was still undeterred from finding freedom outside of North Korea. She escaped again to China shortly after her release from the prison camp. She was sold off three times by traffickers, again under the pretense that she was going to be given work. With the last husband, she had her beautiful daughter.
Yoon Suk wanted to give her daughter a better life, and knew that would not be possible in China. Without the proper documentation, her daughter would have difficulty even going to school and would be denied the opportunities available to other Chinese children. Yoon Suk and her daughter escaped China together through Liberty in North Korea’s network and are now on their way to safety in South Korea.
Yoon Suk is excited for the life and opportunities that lie ahead of her. She’s a talented cook and wants to explore the option of obtaining a culinary certificate in South Korea. She also has high hopes for her daughter, who loves art just like her mother did as a young girl, and wants to enroll her in dance and painting lessons. Yoon Suk’s greatest wish is to reunite with her two adult sons someday. She often dreams about appearing on TV to send a message to her sons, showing them she’s alive and well.
Thank you for helping supply the funds for Yoon Suk’s rescue. Your efforts have changed her life and have provided the opportunity for her to enjoy her new LIBERTY.
A North Korean Defector’s Nine Year Journey to Freedom | Eunju’s Story
I didn’t know I was hungry until I was eight years old. Growing up, I had no concept of whether my hometown was wealthy or poor. Then when the great famine struck in the mid-90s, more people died in our city than anywhere else in the country.
That’s when I realized “Oh, this is the most difficult place to live in North Korea.”
I was born in the city of Eundok, North Hamgyong Province. Before that it was called Aoji, a destitute place infamous for its coal mines, where South Korean prisoners of war were sent to work.
In the middle of a long famine, people lose all sense of humanity. You couldn’t survive without dirtying your hands. My father was a kindhearted person, the type that was unable to hurt anyone. But towards the end, hunger drove him to steal from our own house.
On my first day of middle school, I couldn’t find my new backpack anywhere. It turns out that my dad had taken it to the Jangmadang, traded it for food, and eaten it by himself. In the end, he still died from starvation, and my mom, my sister, and I were left to fend for ourselves.
We heard that if we went to China, we could eat all the candy we wanted. With that one piece of information, my mom said she’d rather get shot crossing the Tumen river than starve in North Korea.
It was mid-February in 1999, during the bitter cold winter. The water was frozen solid and stretched over 100 meters across. My mom went first, followed by my sister, and I was in the very back. Maybe it was because I was anxious, but my shoes felt so slippery and I kept falling over as they went farther and farther ahead. We heard that soldiers would shoot anyone who tried to cross the river. But this was our only chance at survival.
My mind was racing, “What if I’m left behind and get caught?” My mom and sister probably feared the same thing.
We encountered a tributary that wasn’t frozen all the way, so my mom waited and had me go first because I was the lightest. A few steps in, the ice broke and I fell into the piercing cold water. None of us knew how to swim. At that moment, I really thought it was the end. But then my feet hit the ground. We had made it to the other side.
Not long after we had crossed into China, a Korean-speaking woman came up to us. She invited us to her house and gave us over a dozen boiled eggs, more food than we had seen in years. In North Korea, when my sister and I had a field trip for school, my mom would cut one boiled egg and give each of us half in our lunch box. To have this much at once was a true luxury. For the first time in a long while, we dared to have some hope.
But then my mom was sold off to a Chinese man. The fortunate thing was that even though my sister and I were 16 and 14 years old, we were so short that people asked if we were 7 or 8. They couldn’t sell us separately, so we were sent together with our mom.
We had been sold for 2000 yuan. When we wanted to leave, the man told us to pay him back. We worked in his house and on his farm but of course we never saw a penny. For three years, we lived in confinement, and my little brother was born.
On a quiet night before my brother was even a year old, Chinese police came to the house in the dark, knocked on the door, and arrested us.
When North Koreans get caught, sometimes they’ll roll up their money and eat it or hide it, but we didn’t have anything. We were taken back across the border with just our clothes. It’s well known that there’s a physical exam to look for hidden money. In a way, you shouldn’t even feel a basic sense of shame as a woman and as a human being. If you cry or plead for mercy, you’ll get beaten up. You cannot question them at all.
With so many people in North Korea dying of starvation, names were removed from the family register after three years without any news. We had already been declared dead. There were two minors and an adult, but our identities couldn’t be confirmed. At the time they couldn’t keep minors in prison without a ruling from the court, so we were entrusted to another person from our hometown. No one wanted extra mouths to feed, so he just let us go.
We went straight to the Tumen river and in 2002, we escaped again.
I had enough food when I was in China. Even dogs and pigs ate rice and corn. But we lived looking over our shoulders, in constant fear of the police.
When we heard about life in South Korea, where our safety and identities would be guaranteed, we decided to defect once more. We were introduced to a broker, gave them some cash upfront, and traveled through Mongolia and the Gobi Desert.
On September 1st, 2006, I arrived at Incheon airport with my mom. My sister joined us in South Korea in 2008. Nine years after first crossing the Tumen River, we were finally together in freedom.
When I was in China, my only wish was that my mom, sister, and I could sleep together, eat together, and come home from work together. I dreamed that someday we could go to the supermarket and get a whole cart full of things to share. After coming to South Korea, we achieved not only that, but everything we’ve ever wanted.
I co-authored a book about my journey, A Thousand Miles to Freedom, with a foreign journalist named Sebastien Falletti. He interviewed several North Koreans, and I agreed to share my story with him out of a sense of duty. I never thought he’d choose me.
Compared to North Korean defectors who live special lives, I don’t actually dream of being a human rights activist. There are times when I don’t want to share anymore and I feel like I have to repeat myself.
But then I think about my best friend in North Korea. Her name is Sunhwa and I don’t think she’s here yet. I imagine that she would want to live like me — to attend college, pave her own way, and explore the vast world we live in. But she is still stuck in the darkness. Until Sunhwa can live a life of freedom, I feel a sense of responsibility to continue to share.
When I think of North Korea, the dark image of my hometown floods my memories. But I would still like to go back just once and visit my dad’s grave. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that he was also a victim of the North Korean regime. I have hope that in this lifetime, North Korea will open up. I’ll return with my mom and my sister, and together we’ll visit my dad’s resting place and prepare a huge meal for him.
For North Koreans to share their stories with audiences around the world, retelling and reliving some of the most harrowing experiences, is an act of exceptional courage. They’re working towards the day when others no longer have to go through the same painful experiences.
You can help rescue more North Korean refugees and support them as they begin their new lives in freedom.