Friday, 11 May 2018

A Story of Two Korean Refugees

They escaped Kim Jong Un

Starting Over in New Zealand

Lincoln Tan
NZ Herald

A woman who says she was once picked as a potential sex slave to North Korea's political elite and another who claims she was trafficked for four years in China have come to New Zealand with dreams of starting new lives.

Bora Choe, 24, and Sue Park, 26 - who are being housed in a secret location in Auckland - are among a group of five women brought here by a Christian group Love Your Neighbour Charity Trust. . . . Choe dreams of becoming a bible teacher and Park wants to be a nurse, and described their lives back in Kim Jong Un's North Korea as a "living hell" and remain cynical about the regime's intentions.

Standing at a height of almost 1.7m, the attractive Choe is considered tall by North Korean standards. At 14, she was selected at school by Kim's government officials to become one of the "nation's brides".  North Korea's sex slavery practice recently made the news when it was claimed that its 230 strong all-female cheerleading squad at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics are also forced to provide sexual services to Kim's top aides.

Choe was born in Ch┼Ćngjin, the capital of Hamgyong Province and the country's third largest city. She said officials would come to schools there selecting girls based on their height and beauty.  "Like the other girls I actually don't know what they have chosen us for except that it is to work for the nation," Choe said.  "As a young girl at that time I felt happy and honoured to be selected."

Choe went through assessments for her beauty, skin and health but was dropped when officials found out that her grandfather was Chinese. Her mother had also defected to South Korea.

Every North Korean is expected to show allegiance to Kim's Workers Party of Korea.
  Choe said how far people could progress in life was based on their loyalty to Kim and the party.  "Anyone with a background of any family links with any foreign country is considered to be disloyal," Choe said.

The other selected girls went on to the next stage which included a complete health and body check and a virginity test.  Those who passed were sent to the capital Pyongyang and some were sent for further training to become actresses, musicians or the military. 

Choe said the discovery by officials of her Chinese heritage also meant she could never get a job, which meant she was destined to work in a labour camp.  "People have to carry stones, do construction work and cleaning public roads without any pay," she said.  "They are not allowed to return home or stay with their families, and have to live in a camp which is like a prison."

Enlisting the help of a broker, Choe made her escape when she was 20 before the officials came to get her.  "Even though the broker was a drug addict, I had to trust him because that was the only way I could get out," she said.  After two attempts, she successfully crossed the shallow Tumen River for China.  "The river is shallow but the currents were strong, and I was almost swept away, I was very nervous but when I saw the chance I just ran," Choe said.  "After that I had to climb cliffs and a very high fence to get into China, where I met another broker who helped me get to Thailand."

Choe's mother, who is already in South Korea, was understood to have paid upwards of $7000 to the brokers.  Many brokers in South Korea are themselves defectors, who work with brokers in China, who in turn work with brokers in North Korea.  The journey would take them to China's southern border into Vietnam and Laos before entering Thailand. From there, they are often flown into South Korea.  Few others would take the Korean Demilitarised Zone route, which is considered extremely dangerous.

Since her escape, Choe had spoken four times to her father and stepmother who told her the regime had been giving them a hard time because she defected.  "I am really worried about what will happen to them," she said.  "I feel sorry for them."

Sue Park was tricked by a broker when she was 17 into believing that he would help her escape to find her mother in China.  Instead she was trafficked and sold into domestic slavery where for four years she was on call to work for her employer 24 hours a day.  Her mother went missing a few years earlier and was believed to be living in China at the time.  "I missed her and really wanted to find her and that is why I wanted to escape," Park said.  She said there was "nothing good" about life in North Korea and everyday was like "living in hell".

Park was born and grew up in Hoery┼Ćng, the birthplace of Kim Jong Un's grandmother.  "In North Korea there is no freedom and we cannot dream of becoming what we want to be after we leave school," Park said.

Park loves soccer but despite being selected to represent her city she was told she could not because her grandmother was Chinese.  Her dream was also to join the North Korean army, but did not believe it was possible because of her background.  She left North Korea without telling her father or younger brother.

"When a broker said he would helped me find my mother, I was happy and went with him," Park said.  "I realised he was lying when after crossing the river, he was paid after handing me over to another broker in China."  She was then sold to Korean Chinese family, where she had to cook, clean, do laundry and taking care of a sick family member.  After four years of working without any pay, she begged the family to let her go.

"They agreed to let me go but said because I came with nothing, I had to leave with nothing," Park said.  With the help of a Chinese friend, she finally managed to find her way to South Korea last June.

Both Park and Choe said they arrived in South Korea with big dreams, but found reality to be very different.  Choe said: "We may speak the same language, but our culture and the way we think are very different."  She was faced with a lot of "stupid questions" by South Koreans, who she felt looked down on their Northern cousins.

"Do you eat tree bark?" people would ask her.  "If North Koreans are hungry, why don't they eat soil?"  Choe said her experience in South Korea made her feel "small and alienated".  She lived with 12 other flatmates, all South Koreans, and would not tell them she was from the North.  Choe dreamt of working for the government but could only find work as a part-time receptionist at a Korean bathhouse.

Missionary Nara Lee, who helped bring Choe and Park to New Zealand with the aim of giving them a new start in life.  "English is important and also living in a society outside of Korea where they wouldn't be judged," Lee said.

Both women hold one-year student visas, Lee said, and were being housed in a secret location in Auckland.  Park said she was worried about how New Zealanders would accept her, but said her experience has so far been positive.  "What I enjoy most is the freedom and peace here," she said.

"Unlike South Korea where we are all very stressed and feel like we have to catch up with people all the time."  Both Choe and Park said they would choose New Zealand over South Korea, and said they would never go back to North Korea.  "God has answered our prayers, and my dream is to be in New Zealand and share the goodness of God with others as a bible teacher," Choe added.

David Cho, an Auckland-based Korean Christian organiser, said plans are underway to set up a Christian base for North Korean defectors in Auckland.  The base would include an English language academy, accommodation block with a kitchen and dining area, and a chapel.

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