Children of North Korean Mothers Find More Hardship in the South
Posted November 25, 2018 7:47 p.m. EST
SEOUL, South Korea — After Seon-mi’s mother escaped North Korea, hoping to find her way to South Korea, she was sold by traffickers to a man in a northeastern Chinese village.
The man was a violent schizophrenic, but the mother was trapped, according to Seon-mi’s South Korean caretakers. She lacked proper papers in China and was vulnerable to forced repatriation to North Korea, where she could face imprisonment, torture or worse. The two had a child, Seon-mi, who is now 11.
More than 32,000 North Koreans have escaped to South Korea since a famine hit their country in the 1990s, and their harrowing journeys are often made worse by having to spend years in limbo in China, according to defectors, human rights researchers and South Korean officials. Some are trapped there for years, forced to work in the sex industry or live with men in the countryside who could not find Chinese wivesbefore the women enlist the help of human rights activists and smugglers to reach South Korea.
When Seon-mi was about 6, her Chinese father murdered his own parents with a knife and then killed himself. But before he did so, he slashed Seon-mi nine times in the chin, neck and shoulder. Despite repeated plastic surgeries in South Korea, which the mother and daughter finally reached, the girl’s scars are still visible.
“I used to cry in the corner of the room while my father thrashed my mom,” she recalled of her early years in China. “She once attempted suicide with rat poison,” said Seon-mi, who, like other children interviewed for this article, is identified only by her first name to protect her privacy.
In recent years, 80 percent of North Korean migrants reaching the South have been women, and almost all of them fled through China.
Human rights activists, Christian missionaries and smugglers help many defectors get from China to countries like Laos and Thailand, where they can request asylum in South Korean embassies and eventually get to the South. Seon-mi’s mother reached South Korea with the help of a smuggler and later sent for Seon-mi, who could go there legally because, having been born in China, she held a Chinese passport.
But many of the women and their Chinese-born children find that their suffering is not over once they finally settle in South Korea. Because the children were born in China, South Korea’s government does not officially consider them defectors from the North. That means they get limited access to the governmental support normally given to defectors, like free health care, free college enrollment and housing subsidies.
About 1,530 Chinese-born children of North Korean defectors have been enrolled in South Korean schools, according to government data. Classmates often taunt them for their background and for not speaking Korean well. Further complicating matters is that their mothers often start new families with men they meet in South Korea, straining ties at home.
Many drop out of school and end up in shelters, like the Rev. Chun Ki-won’s Durihana International School in Seoul, as Seon-mi did soon after her arrival in South Korea in 2015. Her mother and her stepfather decided that she could not adapt to South Korea’s public schools.
“These children are more disadvantaged than North Korean defectors themselves,” Chun said. “Giving them South Korean citizenship is about all the government does for them.” On a recent Friday, the doors of the three-story shelter bore eviction orders. The building had been included in a redevelopment project, and Chun, at any rate, hadn’t gotten enough donations to pay the rent. Inside, a choir of defectors’ children practiced with teenage volunteers from South Korean families.
“I am not alone,” they sang. “For all my scars, I can still smile.”
“Making the refugee children smile has been one of the hardest parts of the choir practice,” said Kim Hee-churl, general manager of the Korean Federation for Choral Music, who volunteered to coach the children. “This is more like a therapy session to instill them with self-confidence.”
In a barely audible voice, Won-hyok, 14, said he and his younger brother, both born in North Korea, preferred the shelter to living with their father, his new wife and their baby.
Da-hee, 13, who was born in South Korea, used to get into fistfights with classmates who called her a “commie” because both of her parents had fled the North. By the time she was brought to the shelter in August, she had been living on the streets, smoking, drinking and stealing coins from laundromats.
Most of the 60 children in Chun’s shelter, like Seon-mi, were born in China.
Mi-yeon, 15, grew up in Mudanjiang in northeastern China, where she often saw her alcoholic Chinese father beat up her North Korean mother.
Amid the family violence, Mi-yeon learned that her father had “bought” her mother for 6,500 renminbi ($943). Her father once reported her mother as an illegal migrant to the Chinese police, so she was sent back to North Korea. After she was released from prison there and made her way back to China, he bought her again.
Mi-yeon tagged along when her mother fled China with the help of smugglers in 2014. On their way to South Korea via Laos, the two met other North Korean women fleeing the Chinese men who had purchased them. One woman said her “husband” showed her off by forcing her to appear naked before his friends.
“Many Chinese men treated their North Korean wives nicely, buying them identification documents, but others treated their women like slaves or toys,” Mi-yeon said. “I wanted my mom to live free from my father and free from the fear of getting caught by the Chinese police and sent back to North Korea again.”
A recent report from Human Rights Watch condemned the widespread sexual violence that women repatriated from China suffer in North Korean prisons.
In South Korea, Mi-yeon had trouble making friends in school after rumors spread that she was from China. Her mother worked overtime and hardly had time to look after her, and she began seeing another man. So Mi-yeon came to the shelter in 2016. In April of last year, a quiet girl who lived at the shelter, Choon-mi, went to stay with her mother, who worked late into the night at a restaurant. But Choon-mi ended up trying to kill herself by jumping from her mother’s ninth-floor apartment.
“I missed my mom so much and had so much to discuss with her, but she was not always there for me,” said Choon-mi, 17. Despite the height from which she jumped, she survived her suicide attempt and is now able to walk again.
Some lawmakers have tried to enact laws to expand the benefits for children of North Korean defectors, especially those born in China. But their efforts remain stalled for lack of support in South Korea, where ensuring human rights for North Koreans has rarely been a priority.
In recent years, South Koreans have become more skeptical about increasing government subsidies for defectors, increasingly seeing them as competitors in a tough labor market, according to a survey released last month by the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. The same survey found that fewer than 30 percent of South Koreans want the government to accept all asylum-seekers from the North, down from 44 percent a decade earlier. In the South’s proposed budget for next year, President Moon Jae-in’s progressive government has slashed funds for helping defectors resettle, while sharply increasing expenditures for potential economic cooperation with North Korea. His priority remains building inter-Korean ties and resolving the crisis over the North’s nuclear weapons program.
The government denies neglecting North Korean defectors and their children. It attributes the budget cut to the declining number of new arrivals in recent years, with Kim Jong Un, the North’s current leader, having made it more difficult to flee the country by tightening border controls. The government says it is expanding support for children born in China, including an offer of free Korean-language classes.
Mi-yeon said she hoped the world would pay more attention to the plight of North Korean women sold in China, and their children.
“It was hard in China, but things didn’t change for us in South Korea, either,” she said.