As part of the 2019 North Korea Freedom Week, an annual week long series of events which ran this year from April 28 – May 5, Isabella Foundation co-sponsored with the Family Research Council and Christian Freedom International the forum “From Orphanage to Escape: An Update on the Current Situation Faced by North Korean Orphans” on May 2. The event featured talks from North Korean defectors Ms. Park Ji-hye (alias), who described her experiences growing up in two North Korean orphanages, followed by Mr. Kim Young-hwa, head of the Seoul based organization North Korean Refugees Human Rights Association, which has been involved with rescuing orphans from North Korea. Mr. Kim added to Park Ji-hye’s testimony by providing structural, historical and political context to explain orphanages in North Korea.
Ji-hye was born in the city of Onsung, in the DPRK’s far north, the second of four children. During the Arduous March famine of the 1990s, when Ji-hye was around ten, her father, a miner, passed away in the midst of a village wide epidemic. Her mother told the siblings she would try to start a business to support the family, then crossed into China. She never returned.
The four siblings were then separated. Ji-hye’s younger sister was adopted while the older sister went to stay with her grandmother. Ji-hye and her younger brother were sent to a state run orphanage, a three story building with terrible facilities where the resident children were barely provided meals. After a brief period, unable to tolerate the situation any longer, Ji-hye and her brother escaped and returned to her grandmother’s home.
Ji-hye next moved to a second orphanage, this time to a private one that was founded and run by a couple who had been recognized as national heroes by Kim Jong-il. Well known throughout the country as “House of a Hero”, the institution was home to 170 orphans and operated both a farm and the orphanage. Ji-hye lived there with her brother for the next ten years. “House of a Hero” was an improvement over the previous, state run orphanage in at least the one respect that the children received two meals a day and did not starve. But Ji-hye soon learned that the new location presented its own challenges.
Typically, Ji-hye’s day began at 4 AM with two hours of outside farm work until sunrise, followed by a march around town chanting “Strong and Big Country!” to wake the villagers, and then some cleaning around the building and some historical sites. After that, school age children attended classes, sharing a single copy of a textbook, while the others returned to work in the field outside. Next, they gathered firewood in the mountain, required to meet a quota in order to receive that evening’s dinner.
At night, everyone participated in self-criticism sessions to confess their own wrongdoings that day while also criticizing others. The young children coped with the situation with the unspoken understanding: today I criticize you and tomorrow you criticize me. The final activity of the night before roll call and lights out was the recreation session with requisite singing and dancing. Children who were in tears after being scolded at the self-criticism session a few moments earlier understood they needed to fake a smile and pretend to enjoy the entertainment.
The founders had three adult married sons who helped their parents manage the orphanage and who acted like kings over the orphans and often sexually harassed and sometimes impregnated the girls. Those who refused the sons’ demands, sexual or otherwise, were beaten while those who complied were assigned lighter chores or received more food and provisions. The founder mother knew about and tried to cover up their sons’ behavior, concerned about damaging the reputation to the “House of a Hero”.
Ji-hye relates an incident when she borrowed a bicycle to go to the market. Returning to the orphanage, she found all 170 children assembled outside in the cold. The oldest son made the children take off their shoes, then beat them with his belt and began beating Ji-hye as well, claiming it was all because Ji-hye failed to report borrowing the bicycle. But then the female owner came out and screamed at the son that she was the one who let Ji-hye take the bike, thus resolving the situation. In order to let Ji-hye recover from her beating, the founding mother allowed her to stay in the couple’s room for about a month.
Staying with the founder couple shielded Ji-hye from the sons to an extent but did not protect her from the founder father himself. Ji-hye describes how the male owner tried to sexually abuse her one morning around 2 AM while the female owner was away looking after the other orphans. Ji-hye managed to escape by slipping away to the restroom and then sought refuge at a neighboring restaurant. The restaurant workers knew about the orphanage family’s behavior and allowed Ji-hye to stay there for the rest of the night. When Ji-hye returned to the orphanage she promised herself never to enter the owner couple’s bedroom again.
When she was 19, Ji-hye ran away from the orphanage for the last time with the intention to live with her grandmother. But after her grandmother criticized her she stayed with her neighbor instead. Meanwhile her brother, still at the orphanage and then age 16, fell ill, his stomach swollen with water retention. The owners of the orphanage feared the boy would die at their facility and therefore blemish the “House of a Hero’s” reputation, so they released him and he was reunited with Ji-hye once again.
Ji-hye, now on her own and responsible for looking after her ill younger brother, needed to earn money. Encouraged by her younger sister’s success as a small businesswoman selling noodles, Ji-hye decided to start her own business as a vendor in the local marketplace. But in order to jump start her enterprise from scratch she had to borrow money at high interest and found herself, six months later, unable to repay her debt. The authorities and market managers, seeking to supplement their own meager incomes, harassed Ji-hye daily, demanding a bribe. When she could not comply, and when she could not pay back her loan, they beat her.
At that point, Ji-hye determined that her only option left was to escape North Korea. She asked her brother what he thought about her defecting to South Korea. Initially he objected and said he could not allow her to leave him. But a short time later, after seeing her bruised from being beaten, he relented and told her, “You can go now. I’ll let you go, so go there and make your life. Since you are over 20 you are going to get married someday, so I’ll consider you are going to get married to someone, then I can’t see you any more. So I’ll let you go. Go as you will.”
So, in 2009, Ji-hye looked for a broker to help her cross the Tumen River to China. Since Ji-hye had no money to pay the broker, she decided her only choice was to allow herself to be trafficked in China and sold to a Chinese man. In China she was sold to a man six years her senior and soon gave birth to a baby boy. But she found her situation another form of prison, with no legal status or safeguard for herself or her son, and ran away from her husband when the boy was six months old.
Ji-hye then contacted her relatives in Yanbian and learned that her two sisters also came to China at different times and had also been sold to Chinese men. The three sisters reunited after having been separated for several years and decided to defect to South Korea together. Ji-hye described the difficulty escaping through China, Laos and Thailand with an infant son, feeding the young boy sleeping medicine to keep him from crying at inopportune moments and risk jeopardizing the group’s safety.
Finally, Ji-hye and her sisters arrived in South Korea in 2010. And then a miracle happened. Ji-hye had long believed her mother died after disappearing into China thirteen years earlier to try to start a business to support the family. But while being interrogated by the National Intelligence Service in Seoul as part of their process to weed out phony defectors from legitimate ones, they told the sisters their mother was alive and well, living in South Korea for the last ten years.
The sisters reunited with their mother and appreciate the new freedoms and opportunities of life in South Korea. Ji-hye has a new family now and is a mother of two. But her pain returns each time she encounters orphans, able to understand all of the difficulties they might be experiencing.
Ji-hye concluded her testimony by urging the audience to do more to support North Korean defectors’ efforts to improve North Korea’s human rights situation.