What Repatriated NK Refugees Must Endure
Below is our interview with a North Korean defector.
“I escaped into China on November 27, 2008. This is my fifth escape. I have no place to go. Let me die here or please help me.”
The temperature outside is already down to -10°C and it will continue to fall. Hong Song-man, 65 years old, begged the interviewer (an LFNKR local staff member) for help, pleading with tears in his eyes. He said he had previously stayed in a village in Helong, Yanbian Korean-Chinese autonomous state of Jilin Province, where villagers helped him.
However, he could not stay long in the village, so he went up into the mountains where he found a hut and stayed there for while, and then came down from the mountain to find a warmer place to sleep. He has been sneaking into the barns of farmers here and there and hiding in stacked rice straw to sleep.
The interviewer noticed that he was wearing no socks and there were holes in his shoes. His right foot was obviously frostbitten. He said the foot hurt a little but that he could walk all right. For two months he had lived like this, with no place to stay, before he managed to reach a Christian church in Longjing. The church had helped him once before, three years earlier.
The head of the church told him that he could stay with them for only a few days, because the police had warned the church not to feed North Korean defectors or to let them stay. The head of the church told him that the state authorities would visit the church in the third week of February.
The North Korean defector, Hong Song-man, told us he comes from Onsong, North Hamgyong, and repeatedly said, “I have absolutely no place to go. Let me die here, or please help me in some way.” In order to calm him down and continue the interview, the LFNKR local staff told the man that we would find a way to help him.
The following summarizes what Hong Song-man told the interviewer.
Potato Peels Were a Luxury Food
Almost half the people in my hometown died from starvation during the two years from 1997 to 1998 in the Arduous March period in North Korea. During this time, everybody in our village ate pine bark and corncobs to fight off starvation.
Potato peels were luxury food back then. I also used to wander around in fields trying to find something to eat. Usually what we found was grass in the field, any kind of grass. We were lucky if we happened to find Chinese cabbage roots.
Eventually, I realized that unless I did something soon, I was going to starve to death. On June 25, 2000, I crossed Tumen River for the first time in my life to escape into China. However, I found that there were already a number of North Korean defectors like me in China, and the strict crackdown on the defectors was going on. I had no choice but to hide in cattle sheds or barns in villages to survive. Six to seven months of the year, I had to live on the streets.
Especially hard was the winter season. When I stayed outside overnight and the temperature went down as low as -30°C, my whole body felt frozen, from my toes to my head. By the next morning I would feel stiff as an iron bar.
I could hardly stand up and often lay on the streets, but nobody seemed to care about me. I was a bum with tears, but I could not kill myself.
Repatriation, Tortures, and Labor Camps
Eventually, on April 25, 2001, I was arrested by Chinese police in Longjing and sent back to North Korea. I was handed over to North Korean authorities in Hoeryong.
First they interrogated me. During that interrogation, they treated me like a beast. Torturing is a matter of course there. After the interrogation, I was transferred to a detention center where they treated me the same way they did at the interrogation place. After two months, I was transferred to my hometown where I was put in a labor camp.
The way they treated me at the interrogation place, the detention center, and the labor camp is beyond description. It is so awful it is beyond your imagining.
Second Escape, Repatriation, Security Dept. in Hoeryong
After 7 months in the labor camp, I was released. I cannot recall the exact date, but then in May 2002 I escaped into China again.
In October 2004, I was arrested by Chinese police in a corridor of a hospital in Longjing. At that time, I was interrogated at the Security Dept. in Hoeryong, and then directly sent to North Hamgyong concentration camp in Chongjin. Life there was even worse. I was constantly starving, and almost every day young people were carried out dead.
Most of the inmates had been repatriated from China. We were confined in a room with absolutely no heating even in midwinter. What I remember is the inmates’ groans from suffering. If we moved even a little bit or if the groans got too loud, guards came and kicked us again and again with their leather boots. Telling you all the details of my life in that concentration camp would fill more than a book.
Only 9 Out of 150 Survive
After I was released from the concentration camp in Chongjin, I escaped to Helong, China in December 2004. It was my third escape. However, in August 2006, I was arrested by the Chinese police in Wangqing and repatriated again. After interrogation by the Security Dept. in North Korea, I was sent to Labor Camp No. 55 located in Oro, Yonguang county, South Hamgyong.
When I arrived at the labor camp, 150 people were working there. Seven months later, in March 2007, only 9 still barely clung to life. All the others had been carried out dead. I was one of the nine survivors. On March 20, they released all nine survivors. They probably thought that we, the remaining nine, would also die soon.
My Son Kicked Me Out, Called Me a “Traitor”
My son was dismissed from the army and came back home. When I told him that I had escaped from North Korea three times and had served time in the labor camps, he kicked me out of his home.
My son denounced me, saying that I was a traitor who betrayed the fatherland. But I understand. Unless he called me a traitor and drove me out, he would be considered a traitor too, so I could no longer stay there. For the happiness of my son, I had to be kicked out. There is no place for me to live in North Korea.
China Is the Only Choice
On March 23, 2008, I escaped and went to Helong again. Staying in North Korea meant that I would simply be waiting to die. I had no choice but repeatedly return to China for the food to survive, even if I had to face the severe crackdown there.
In 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics, authorities cracked down even more harshly on North Korean defectors. Eventually, I was again arrested by the Chinese police in Wangqing on June 20, 2008 and sent back to North Korea.
And so here I am in China yet again. I escaped from North Korea once more on November 27, 2008, but I know I could be re-arrested and sent back. Please help me. If I am sent back another time, I will probably not survive it. I hope someone can help me escape the endless prisons, beatings, tortures and starvation. I just want to find some peace in my life. Something that will last.
NOTE: LFNKR is currently working on Mr. Hong Song-man‘s case, preparing to share the necessary information with international NGOs. If his case is taken up, this can result in his making his way to freedom.
Please join with us in hoping that he can have his safe and peaceful home at long last.
Report submitted by Sonan Minami
(LFNKR local staff)