Interview with NK Border Shelter Staff Members

Human Trafficking and Starvation

Recently an LFNKR staff member visited some of the shelters in China being run clandestinely by this NGO. The following interview with a few local staffers working at one of the shelters brings us information about the recent food situation in North Korea and the victims of human trafficking.

In the interview, “LFNKR” indicates one of our people dispatched from Japan who interviewed “Local staffers,” who are the people actually caring for North Korean refugees and orphans living in our shelters in China.

LFNKR: Has the number of North Korean defectors increased this winter?

Local staffer: There are a lot. For North Korean defectors hiding in Chinese homes, there is always the danger of being reported to the authorities. So a lot of them are told to go to a church. They are also told the same thing after they reach South Korea, if they have difficulties.

Local staffer: The flow of defectors is not organized; they find their way to the churches on their own. If you add up the numbers from all the various churches, it’s happening more or less every day.

Local staffer: In that sense it’s every day. They go to churches looking for help separately, in dribs and drabs.

LFNKR: How many people on average?

Local staffer: Around ten people a day, at busy times. What’s significant is the number of people with travel permits entering China. According to recent figures, 120 a day are entering the Yanbian area.

Local staffer: 120 people come into the country through the proper channels, under the guise of traveling or visiting family members.

Local staffer: The people with travel permits also individually seek help at many places.

Local staffer: According to recent defectors, this year the government gave people whole cobs of corn for a change.

Local staffer: North Korea gets aid from South Korea and a lot of other countries. So I think they distributed the corn to avoid pressure about why there is so much poverty despite receiving all that aid.

Local staffer: But it was a one-off distribution.

Local staffer: They said they put some of the corn into a soup made from Chinese cabbage or wild vegetables, and make it into a thin gruel to eat.

Local staffer: Apparently it was distributed sometime in November.

Local staffer: Everyone was thrilled just to get that.

Local staffer: If you want to talk about the current situation, Chinese mobile phones work along the North Korean border, and apparently a lot of people are using them to make contact with people in China. So in order to prevent that, a new radar system has been set up.

Local staffer: Even the people who enter China (legally) for the purpose of visiting family don’t necessarily have rich relatives here. Things are tough for the relatives, so if they are asked to help their North Korean relatives as well, it makes things even tougher. That’s why the churches get a lot of phone calls asking for help.

Local staffer: As to their living arrangements, in the summer the defectors have no choice but to sleep outside. Churches are under the supervision of the government, so it’s impossible to protect North Korean refugees.

Local staffer: In the past, churches took care of the refugees. In many cases, they stayed in houses run by the churches. However, they couldn’t stay more than a year; if they did, they were reported to the authorities.

Local staffer: The defectors talk about why they escaped to China. When they were in North Korea, they thought they were living in the richest country in the world. They didn’t have to pay taxes, education was free; they thought it was the greatest country possible. They say they were taught that they had to prepare for war in order to counter American aggression. They are also told that even though their country is poor now, if they could just stick it out they will see what a happy existence they are living compared to Japan and South Korea. They hear that in capitalist countries this kind of happiness is impossible. They talk about how it was all a lie.

Local staffer: They regret not leaving the North sooner.

Local staffer: That is what the defectors are saying this year.

Local staffer: According to Young Hyon’s mother, the situation is much worse this year.

LFNKR: Are there food shortages this year?

Local staffer: The leader of a group of defectors that entered China this year sought out family in China, but couldn’t receive enough assistance from them, so they came to our shelter.

According to that person, in North Korea, people are eating other people. I heard this with my own ears.

LFNKR: Really? And that’s happening this year?

Local staffer: I’ve heard of this kind of thing in the past too. When I pressed for clarification, I didn’t get a straight answer, but was just told, “It happens a lot. Kill somebody, put it into dumplings, sell it at the market…” Another defector told me about watching a public execution. Apparently, the person being executed had become a murderer because he ceased to see people as humans, but as pork. He said, “So take things into your own hands—take a kitchen knife and slice them up and eat him…”

LFNKR: That’s happening this year?

Local staffer: Yes, this year.

Local staffer: Yu Son’s mother fled North Korea this year, so it’s reliable.

LFNKR: You hear that North Korea has had a bumper crop…

Staffer B: That’s ludicrous. They’re just saying that to save face.

Staffer B: Why are they issuing so many travel permits?

LFNKR: Why didn’t the mother talk?

Local staffer: Yu Son’s mother was scared; she couldn’t talk.

Local staffer: She won’t talk in front of the camera.

Local staffer: She says she saw that (the eating of human flesh) with her own eyes. That people would exchange their children and cook them, because they couldn’t eat their own children…

LFNKR: That was this year?

Local staffer: She wouldn’t say for sure, but she said that it happened.

LFNKR: What about human trafficking?

Local staffer: There’s no doubt about it. Mi Hwa’s mother at that time was young, so she went for 3000 RMB. If the woman has a child, the going price is 2000 RMB.

Local staffer: Being sold means marriage, but there are no feelings involved. Getting by becomes a duty.

Local staffer: If the authorities catch a North Korean who has been sold, she will be sent back to North Korea. Everybody knows what will happen if they are forced to go back. The Chinese buyers threaten to report the female North Korean defectors if they don’t obey them. They treat them like slaves.

LFNKR: What about men and the elderly?

Local staffer: The men live like vagrants.

Local staffer: They wander about begging, picking pockets, committing burglaries.

Local staffer: Some of them work in construction, if they’re lucky enough to hear about a place.

Local staffer: We’ve also been approached by good-looking men from North Korea. When you ask them whether they’re married and how many kids they have, they tell you they have no thoughts of marriage; when they see a woman they feel nothing. It’s dangerous being married to a North Korean woman.

LFNKR: So the buyers are single men?

Local staffer: That’s right. And in the countryside, there are large numbers of single men. They’re barely scraping by.

LFNKR: What about trafficking in children?

Local staffer: We don’t let that happen to the children who come to our shelter.

Local staffer: There are brokers specializing in children, especially 17-to-18-year-olds.

LFNKR: So, about child trafficking…

Local staffer: It happens a lot around Haeryon. The brokers sell the women after having their way with them. I’ve never heard of young children being trafficked.

LFNKR: And North Korean women bear children…?

Local staffer: That’s right. It happens a lot. Most of them give birth. And there are some defectors who will sell their own children and run away when things get tight economically and they have nothing to eat.

Local staffer: If they took the money they get for selling their children back to North Korea, it would be a lot of money, you know.

LFNKR: Where do they sell them?

Local staffer: If a North Korean gives birth to a girl, people will say, “You don’t want to get sent back to North Korea, do you? Why don’t you sell the baby, send her away somewhere, we know this childless woman who…” There are Chinese people like that, you know. The people who buy the babies are also Chinese.

Local staffer: In the case of 5-year-old Yong-soon also, I think her mother gave birth in order to sell the baby. Even one is a handful, but the second one, I think she meant to sell it. Chinese people can only give birth to one child. So she had another one so she could sell it. Before she could give birth she was caught and sent back to North Korea.

Local staffer: A lot of the defectors have skewed values. They’re hungry, so all they think about is their own survival.

LFNKR: How many of these children are there?

Local staffer: I don’t know exact numbers, but most female defectors give birth. If they don’t, their Chinese husbands won’t trust them. If the women have babies, their husbands are more likely to trust the mothers with their money and such.

Local staffer: They’re not legitimate children, so if they are discovered by authorities and aren’t listed on the family register, they are taken into custody.

LFNKR: What about the nationality of the children?

Local staffer: Children born to Chinese fathers and who are listed in the family register are protected. The same is not true for children brought from North Korea.

LFNKR: What about children who are neither North Korean nor Chinese?

Local staffer: There are many of them.

Local staffer: I know Yong-soon’s younger sister through Yu Son’s mother. Yu Son’s mother was also beaten up by her husband; she was covered in blood when she came to our shelter three years ago looking for help.

Local staffer: Yu Son’s mother said that in her village there was another North Korean defector living in poverty. At that time, Yu Son’s elder sister Sol Hee was able to get assistance through our connections. According to Yu Son’s mother, another elder sister, Myong Ok, also applied for assistance.

Local staffer: At that time, the situation at home was terrible. I wanted to do whatever I could to help them get assistance.

Local staffer: At that time, Myong Ok was four years old.

Local staffer: Yong-soon was born around that time.

Local staffer: In the country, when you have kids, you have to work, but the mother couldn’t work. As for the father, even when he had money, he spent it all on drinking and gambling. Even though they were destitute, they had another child; when I went they were in an awful mess. That’s why we asked for your assistance to help them.

Local staffer: In the past, when we applied for assistance for protection of Kim Gum, Sol Hee, Pee Ju, and Chol Nam, the people would come directly from Japan, take some pictures, and then they could arrange assistance. But in Myong Ok’s case, nobody came. Looking at this family, honestly, I just feel so sorry for them, I’ve contacted the Tokyo office several times. Finally, they said to send the application by fax, so I did, and they finally began to send aid.

LFNKR: How about Yong-soon?

Local staffer: At that time, the mother had two children as well as an old woman living with her. She had a five-san [unit of measurement] field, but before you can plant anything you have to borrow money from the government. That year, their crops were destroyed by natural disaster, so they ended up going into debt.

Local staffer: They were overwhelmed by the debt, and all their crops were confiscated. Their house was confiscated. Their crops were taken away as soon as they harvested them.

Local staffer: The reason they fled to China from North Korea was to stay alive. But Yong-soon’s family couldn’t even manage that. The mother had disappeared; I talked to the father and suggested that he go to North Korea and bring her back with him. He said she wouldn’t come back, that she had been talking about leaving even before she got sent back to North Korea. So she wouldn’t be coming back. You’d think she’d be back for the sake of the children, but she hasn’t returned yet. Life is too hard here, she won’t be coming back.

LFNKR: When was she sent back to North Korea?

Local staffer: When Yong-soon was two years old, two years ago.

Local staffer: I remember when she was caught. I was at the house, working in the cornfields, when she came in and said that she was going to take Yong-soon to the hospital as she was sick, and asked for some money. I later heard that she had been picked up by the Chinese police.

LFNKR: Why was Yong-soon spared?

Local staffer: Because she and Myong Ok were officially registered.

Local staffer: In China, in the countryside, children are not picked up by the Security Service. In cities like Yanji they do take them into custody. The place I live, out in the country it is different.

Local staffer: Sol Hee’s mother was really regretting not leaving her child behind, too.

Local staffer: After that, they came to live under our care. In Myong Ok’s case, after I sent a fax we received money for her to live on. Please tell that to the LFNKR Tokyo office. Four people are living on that money received from Japan.

LFNKR: What about food?

Local staffer: We’re in the country, so food isn’t a problem. In the Chinese countryside we have rice, and other people help us out, too.

Local staffer: Yong-soon’s family doesn’t have a house at the moment; they’re living in this shelter.

LFNKR: When were they evicted from their house?

Local staffer: In the fall of this year.

Local staffer: In the countryside, you just can’t manage with a 30,000 RMB debt hanging around your neck.

Also Read the Border Report 2006