NKSC took Ji Heon-ah Ha to Hong Kong to interview with NEXT Magazine throughout the North Korea Human Rights Film Festival.Here is the translated article from Cantonese to English by NKDC co-founder Andrew Chung. We have added pictures of the interview and the magazine artile.
Freedom, never “take it first” – Next Magazine, issue 1277, 28 Aug 2014, p.50-52
In North Korea, everyone can vote for the leader in the elections. However, there is always only one candidate. If you do not vote, you will be shot to death. The results of autocracy are famine from time to time and truth cannot be spoken. Thousands of North Koreans defect under the risk of death. After entering the bordering state of China, men become illegal workers and women are married to old peasants as machines for reproduction. Those defectors in China used to think that the temporarily borrowed freedom could be “taken first”. But those who have encountered by themselves know that China is actually not much better than North Korea. In a similar state without freedom, they live like rats and consistently evade from the network and chasing of police. Ji Heon-ah a 35-year-old, tells her miserable experience of four escapes, being sold, brutal assault, forceful abortion and losing family and friends. She is speaking to the world for the grievance of North Koreans.
Ji Heon-ah came to Hong Kong on Saturday to attend the sharing session held by North Korean Defector Concern, Amnesty International Hong Kong, and North Korea Strategy Center. In white dress with black pattern, also with pale skin, little eyes and square face, she looked like a Korean “a-jum-ma”. But there was always grievance on her face, seemed responding the pitiful experience she talked about.
The father of Heon-ah was a conductor in orchestra, leading musicians to glorify Korean Labour Party led by Kim’s family. Since she was born in a red and privileged family and her childhood was in the Kim Il-Sung’s era, she enjoyed the freedom from want in the rationing system. But the fate of Yeon-A totally changed on 9th July 1994. She remembered clearly the moment of broadcasting the news of the death of the “great leader”, “I was crying sadly and whole-heartedly.”
Kim Jong-Il assumed power afterwards. The whole nation was in a great famine and beggars were in everywhere. “They begged for food, thieved others’ things and some people sold their children to China.” Their family started losing food rationing. Heon-ah and her siblings could only beg on the streets and search food on hills. But it was cold season and there were even no insects on the hills. “Even tree barks were completely eaten. We could only pick up the scraps of bark on the ground.”
One day, Heon-ah’s father said suddenly after returning home from work, “we have to go to China. It is a fraud here!” The father occasionally heard the broadcast of a South Korean radio station, learning the description of “South Korean are starving and even worse than the North” by the leaders was a total lie. Yeon-A was just 19 years old and could not accept her patriotic father would say such “betrayal” words. However, the family of five eventually followed the father to walk for over a day until reaching Tumen River on the border of China. They planned to enter Liaoning Province.
But they had no idea of what China was. Heon-ah’s father only roughly heard about the scene of the opposite side. It was said that they would see some abandoned houses after walking two or three miles after crossing the river. It was a place many defectors assembled. The father did not dare to let the whole family to take the risk at the same time, so he decided to swim across the river alone. Heon-ah, her mother, little brother and sister would cross the river in another location and all of them agreed to gather at the abandoned house. Heon-ah’s lips trembled slightly while telling the reporter of this moment, “I remember when we were parting, my father’s hands held my shoulders tightly. We looked into each other’s eyes and tears almost burst. He said, ‘You must be careful and take good take of your brother and sister. You must leave North Korea!’” Unfortunately they have been parted since that. The fate of Heon-ah’s father is still unknown. While Yeon-A was searching for the so-called abandoned house after getting ashore, she met Chinese police and the whole family was immediately sent back to North Korea.
During the journey of repatriation, she kept trembling because she believed that she would be executed publicly due to treason. Finally, not sure it was lucky or not, the prisons were fully occupied since the famine was out of control and many people escaped from the country. Illegal migrants for the first time were released. Heon-ah escaped from prison but lost her father. The family still lacked food. Her mother could only illegal enter China again with her sister and asked her to look after the little brother.
Mother left and brought no news back. Heon-ah knew that she would only die if staying in North Korea. The only way for survival was to sell herself to China and become a wife of a countryman. “All North Korea women became merchandise. I was 19 years old and worth 30,000 RMB. Those who aged over 30 were only worth 15,000 RMB.”
She entered China illegally for the second time. She was brought to a remote village by a broker and was married to an old peasant who usually worked in other provinces. She was just a tool for giving birth. Her husband left for working in distant place few days after getting married. She stayed at home for farming and looking after her old mother-in-law. Such freedom and material satisfaction she “took first” only lasted for two months. She was caught in a raid search by police then was deported to North Korea.
Heon-ah was put into prison this time. She saw a familiar face there, “the most tragic thing in my life was to reunite with my mother in prison.” Yeon-A’s mother went to China and was also captured and sold by brokers to a farm as a labourer. She was one month earlier than Heon-ah being repatriated and imprisoned. Except hugging in tears behind bars, the mother and daughter could do nothing. Finally her mother was released earlier than her.
After serving in prison for two years, she was pardoned on Kim Jong-Il’s birthday. She could not find her mother and siblings after returning home. Some neighbours who were traffickers cheated her that her“mother earned some money and was waiting for reuniting with her in China”. Consequently the 21-year-old was sold again to a Chinese peasant aged over 50. It was 2000. “I did farming, feeding chickens, cooking and laundry every day. I kept on working from dawn to evening just like an animal in a cage.”
Heon-ah once again thought that she better to accept what was happening. Involuntary comfort should be “taken first”. Half a year later, unfortunately, she was arrested by police again and sent to prison in North Korea. This time was more miserable, “I was found pregnant for three months while body check. They directly took me to an operation room and made abort forcefully.” She was tortured several times afterwards. “They beat the back of my head with big wood rods and the rods were even broken. My face was covered with blood.” Her head was severely injured and sequel still remains that she always suffers from head pain.
Three escapes, three arrests. Luck seemed never blessing Heon-ah. But her mind did not die and became more eager to leave North Korea. “I did not know if my relatives survived at that time. Besides hoping to find by family, I also wish to be a writer to tell the world about the things in North Korea and China.” After released in 2002, she immediately defected for the forth time. She successfully entered China this time but could only work illegal in different places. “Some employers were very bad. They did not pay me after I worked. Instead they threatened to report me.” Those were in the bad days, “once I heard a crowd of children singing ‘Only Mothers Are Good in the World” in the street. I learnt that and always sang to comfort myself.”
Heon-ah farmed, looked after kids and also worked in some small plants in many villages in Liaoning and Jilin. Five years passed quickly. “Finally in 2007, I met a South Korean merchant who was sympathetic to me. He paid to get a fake passport for me and sent me to South Korea by plane.” She got assistance from other defectors to find her mother siblings afterwards. They were brought to South Korea in recent years. After 14 years of separations and gathers, the family eventually reunited in a free nation. “Four of us took a family picture in South Korea. Regretfully my father was absence from this joyful picture.”
Heon-ah has not abandoned her ideal. She goes to school again in South Korea and studies politics in university. She wrote about her experience in a book “Walked for thousands of miles for searching freedom”. Recalling the dreadful experience lasted for over a dozen years, Heon-ah said she was most tired of the frightening life every day. She did not dare to go outside at night and was most afraid of police. Even now she is in South Korea, she quivers every time when she hears police whistle because she recalls the moment of being chased by police in China. She once sat in a car of her friend in South Korea and the car was intercepted by police. She was so frightened to rush out of the car. Heon-ah deeply understands that there are no freedom and fortune to be “taken first” in the world.
Reunite in heaven
Inside communist states, people are so alerted of others that it is difficult to have sincere friends. Meanwhile, Heon-ah met her friend of life in prison, Yeong-Hee, who had similar misfortune. Yeong-Hee’s parents were executed due to attempt to escape. Heon-ah and Yeong-Hee had a humble wish in the prison: walking away from the prison alive.
“Yeong-Hee said her family was from Jeju Island. So we agreed that we had to visit her hometown later. Nevertheless, Yeong-Hee could not make it. I witnessed Yeong-Hee got sick and no one cured her. She was staying hungry that made her extremely thin, as well as a weak child in Africa.” Yeong-Hee held Heon-ah’s hands before she died, “sister, I have to leave first. Thank you for staying with me in the last journey. It’s regretful that I cannot go to Jeju with you.” Her body was ruthlessly thrown to a mass grave.
Heon-ah got married with a South Korean man after landing there. She insisted not to go abroad in the honeymoon trip. Instead, she chose to go to Jeju, shouting to the sea, “Yeong-Hee! I am now in Jeju. I am happy. I wish you could see in heaven!”
According to the statistics from Unification Ministry of South Korea, there are approximately 26,000 defectors living in South Korea. Some five thousands North Korean defectors are lawfully residing in Europe and Americas. Most of the rest of the defectors are staying in China, which are roughly estimated of over 30,000 people. Meanwhile, South Korean Government’s record shows that the average income of defectors in the country is only about 60% of local people and the unemployment rate is up to 10%. The causes are the difficulties for defectors to adapt new lifestyle and discrimination from South Koreans. Some of them even have psychological problems. Heon-ah is just like other defectors, bearing the scars of North Korea for the rest of their lives.