By Christopher Motola, HRNK Research Intern
In our Former Prisoner Testimony section, we highlight notable accounts of people who were previously imprisoned in North Korea’s prisons. Two of the accounts are particularly striking. The stories of Ms. Bang Mi-sun and Ms. Ji Hae-Nam stand out not only because of their horrifying experience in the kyo-hwa-so (prison labor camps), but because of another element that is not usually mentioned when discussing North Korea–China. The North Korean people face countless struggles every single day, yet the source of their hardship is not solely the Kim Regime. The harsh reality is that even immediate escape from North Korea does not mean a relief from the nightmare. Instead, the situation is akin to the expression of going “out of the frying pan and into the fire.”
During the famine of the 1990s, when North Korea’s Public Distribution System collapsed and starvation was rampant, many North Koreans had little choice but to cross over into China in search of food and employment. Such was the case of Ms. Bang Mi-sun. However, instead of supporting these escapees, the Chinese government forcibly repatriates them back to North Korea. In order to avoid this situation, Ms. Bang entered into a marriage to a Chinese man, brokered by human traffickers. She was later kidnapped by other traffickers, who again sold her into a marriage where she faced unspeakably horrendous sexual abuse that seriously impacted her health. She was eventually caught by the Chinese police and sent back to North Korea (without receiving proper medical care), where she would go on to face the hardships of the prison system. Similarly, Ms. Ji escaped North Korea, only to be forced to endure sexual slavery for seven months in China, all before being repatriated back to North Korea.
The North Korean people are some of the strongest and most enduring people on the planet. Many have gone through the worst trials and tribulations imaginable, just to escape North Korea. They deserve our respect, as well as our compassion, assistance, and care. However, they face similar, if not worse conditions in China, where their human rights are still not recognized. Instead of allowing them to be vulnerable to sexual exploitation or threatened with deportation, the Chinese government should work to assist these brave escapees and help to make the long and arduous path to freedom end at the Chinese border, instead of making it the second leg of an impossible race.
If you are interested in learning more about conditions for North Korean defectors in China, please visit HRNK.org and look at our report Lives for Sale: Personal Accounts of Women Fleeing North Korea to China.
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleague Katty Chi. A native of Chile and graduate of the London School of Economics, Katty became a North Korean human rights defender in her early 20s. Katty was chief of international affairs with the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC) in Seoul from 2010 to 2014 and worked with the Seoul Office of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) from 2019 to 2020. A remarkable member of our small North Korean human rights community, Katty brought inspiration and good humor to all. Katty passed away in Seoul in May 2020, at the young age of 32. She is survived by her parents and brother living in Chile. With the YPWP series, we endeavor to honor Katty’s life and work.