Trafficked North Korean Woman in China Finds Hope amid Despair
April 23, 2015
Trafficked North Korean women in prayer at church gathering in an undisclosed northern province.
After a collapsed coal mine killed her husband, and her son starved to death during North Korea's 1990s famine, Mi-Hyeon Li* fled to China. A hot meal awaited her on the other side – offered by traffickers who sold women to Chinese men.
From her hometown near the city of Howe-Ryung in North Hamgyong Province, she crossed the Tumen River into China with her sister in 1998. She was 32. They were wondering which direction to head when a man speaking Korean approached and told them he could find well-paying work for them.
"He offered us a hot, delicious meal in a place near his apartment. It was the meal we hadn't had for a long time in my country," Li said. "He gave a very kind first impression. We trusted in him and followed him to Yanji city, where we stayed in his place around a month."
One night five Korean-speaking men came to the apartment, saying the sisters were under arrest and would be repatriated to North Korea. They pulled and pushed Li into one car and shoved her sister into another. When she asked where her sister was, they told her to be quiet. Several hours later they arrived at a northern province train station.
"I kept asking where my sister was," Li said. "They answered they didn't know and told me they bought me, so I must follow them. They forced and threatened me. Since that night 18 years ago when I was separated from my sister, I have never heard any more of her. It has been so hard for me to survive without knowing where my sister is and how she is doing."
The traffickers sold Li for the equivalent of about $1,000 to a poor, Chinese paralytic, who took her as his wife to a remote farm village in an undisclosed northern province. Not knowing Chinese, Li could make no requests. She was kept in a small, dilapidated house with the man's younger sister keeping constant watch over her. Worse, she said, Chinese police routinely made round-ups of North Koreans in accordance with a repatriation pact between the two nations. But rather than send them back to North Korea, Chinese police only jailed them and collected bail amounts for their release.
Each time she was arrested, the man who had bought her had to take out loans to pay $650 in bail, she said.
"I spent my time in those days worrying so much about the police and my sister's whereabouts. This made me sick, and often they sent me to the hospital, but even so I was able to give birth to a daughter," she said. "However, we couldn't do anything about the loans that he made towards bailing me out."
North Koreans bow to statues of the former "supreme leaders," Kim Il Sung and his son and successor, Kim Jong Il.
Loans for bail and survival measures eventually amassed to more than $10,000. Despite not having tofu-making machinery, Li tried to make a dent in the debt by making and selling tofu. Her daughter initially managed to attend school without legal status, but eventually she had to be registered as a legal resident in order to continue. Li did not have the money to obtain legal status for her, and the girl was forced to quit school and work in a restaurant.
Li heard of several other North Korean women in the village leaving their children and "husbands" in order to go to South Korea to find work. Her daughter tearfully begged her not to try going to Seoul.
"She told me, 'I will work hard for you to pay off the private loan, so don't go. We can live here together in peace. Please don't leave me alone,'" Li said. "I couldn't leave my daughter who loves me so much. If I had made up my mind to go to South Korea, then what would happen to my daughter and husband?"
The director of an area ministry reaching out to North Korean immigrants said the paralytic father of Li's daughter could do nothing without Li's help.
"Leaving him alone, he always caused problems, breaking his knees from falling on the ground," said the director, known only as Suran. "Li had several chances to go to South Korea to receive a better life there, as many other North Korean women did, but she could not leave her daughter and the poor, sick paralytic behind, because they needed her."
Li said she feels good now that she did not leave them; one advantage of staying was meeting Suran, also North Korean, who had also been trafficked and had settled in the area. Suran has identified 90 other North Korean trafficked women in the area and, with assistance from Christian Aid Mission, is providing them with small-business loans, school tuition for their children, and help with legal costs.
"Suran was telling me that if I believe in Jesus and pray to the Lord, God would listen to us and we would be in peace," Li said. "So I began to attend the church, and I became a witness to that. I saw my life making a transition, from miserable encounters to approaching hope."
The ministry helped obtain legal residency for Li's now 15-year-old daughter and hopes to help Li achieve her goal of opening a tofu store, Suran said.
"I am praying with Li that the Lord may help her open a small store so that she can make some money to support them and a happy home in China," Suran said. "When I asked to receive her prayer list, Li told me she would need about $3,300 to open a small store."
Li said the debt she owes to various people weighs heavily on her; she wants to pay them off and live in peace. She said she hopes Christ will enable her to buy a tofu-making machine to be able to sell more tofu in the market.
"My life in China has been so hard but now I've met Jesus," she said. "I like to believe Him and do my best to follow Him. I would pray to Him wherever I go, so that He may protect me all the way. One more wish that I have is that the Lord God may let my country be unified again so that we can go back to our home freely to see my brother and sisters again and tell them how good the Lord God is."
*Name changed for security reasons