Trafficked Women Show Up among North Korean Refugees in China

April 02, 2015

North Koreans are taught to worship Kim Il Sung and his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, the country's former "supreme leaders."

The pain of seeing her young son suffer from malnutrition in North Korea was sharp enough that Mee-Yon Jhang* endured the pain of leaving him and her husband, who was losing his sight to malnutrition, to seek work in China. Unable to nurse her baby daughter because of her own lack of nutrition, Jhang had already seen the girl die at the age of 18 months.

Jhang, while struggling to keep her family alive in North Korea as a street peddler, had made an unsuccessful attempt to kill herself before she decided to go to China. She later heard she could make $80 a month working in people's homes in China. The desperate mother told her near-blind husband she could save enough money to return in three years. That was 1998.

"I was led to a small mountain, called Noh," the 48-year-old Jhang said. "They took me to Hwa-Ryong city by car. There I no longer saw the guide who brought me here from North Korea. Then a few strangers came to me, telling me to go to Yanji city with them. I asked them where was the guy who took me there. They then told me that he sold me to them."

The shocked Jhang tried to resist, but they forced her to Yanji, then to Heilongjiang Province by train, and finally to her current location.

"I would never lose the thought of my son crying and his tears flowing down his cheeks," she said. "I can't sleep without crying when I remember his face with tears and could hear him crying. I could not keep the promise that I would return to him. No one could imagine how it would hurt my heart."

She was sold to a poor Chinese man with a leaky roof. Forced to collect litter to sell on the street, she lived with him in poverty for three years as a purchased wife until one day a police car arrived. She was repatriated to North Korea, where many returnees are treated as less than human in labor camps.

"Knowing that we were being repatriated to North Korea, four North Korean women who were in the same detention room, about to be imprisoned, took poison together," Jhang said. "At that time, in my womb, there was a baby growing."

Officials at a North Korean detention center, where they arrived two weeks later, cursed, beat and tortured the surviving women. Her baby died in the womb. Jhang observed that babies conceived of Chinese men were not allowed to live anyway; North Korean authorities killed them just before or immediately after birth.

"It was kind of like a hell I could never imagine," Jhang said. "Then, I was blessed to run away during the transit to my home town detention house. Because I was so weak, almost ready to die, no one was paying attention to me running away."

She arrived home to find her son severely malnourished and her husband nearly dead. She tried to escape the country again, this time with her son. The river at that time, however, was deeper than when she had crossed during winter.

"I couldn't cross the river with my son together – I never learned how to swim," she said. "So I felt I may kill my son in the water. I gave up bringing my son with me. I was forced to leave him behind again in North Korea."

Jhang had asked relatives to take care of her son, in case he had to turn back, but she does not know whether he has survived.

She nearly drowned trying to cross the river. On the Chinese side, again people who appeared to take care of her initial needs turned out to be smugglers, but this time she was prepared and managed to run away from them. Jhang returned to the house of the man who had bought her as his wife. She learned that he went into a downward, alcoholic spiral after losing his North Korean wife and baby, and that no one had seen him for three years.

As she struggled to survive, another trafficked North Korean woman left her young daughter with Jhang, when the woman began an escape to South Korea; Chinese police caught the fleeing mother near the border with Laos, and since her repatriation to North Korea, no one knows whether she is still alive.

"When she left, she begged me to keep her daughter for one year till she settled down in South Korea, then she would come to take her back," Jhang said. "But I have been taking care of her for almost 10 years."

Again trying to care for a child when she could barely support herself, Jhang began going to a church to pray and be prayed for, despite having no knowledge of the One to whom she was praying. There she came into contact with a ministry that cares for North Korean refugees, headed by a North Korean identified only as Suran for security reasons.

"God was so gracious to have me meet the sweet and kind North Korean sister, Suran – she acts like an angel to me and to all of us," Jhang said. "Sister Suran told me that Jesus was the one to take care of the people like us, who are in sorrow, difficulties, poverty and hunger, so that we must learn about Him and believe in Him. Since then my heart has been wide open from being tightly closed before, against people and neighbors."

The ministry, which has recently found 90 other trafficked women among the refugees it helps, seeks to provide micro-enterprise loans to enable them to provide for themselves and their loved ones.

"The average fund we may need for the micro-enterprise funding would be $5,000 per family, max," Suran said. "This will help them to open a small store. We want to try doing it for one family per month."

North Korea continues to be a socialist state under the Workers Party of Korea.

Thus the ministry seeks $60,000 in order to provide small loans over the next year to 12 trafficked women, such as Jhang, who would like to open a store selling traditional Korean food.

"She also hopes to have some money to have her adopted daughter go to school," Suran said. "We also would like to support school tuition for children of the trafficked women."

In order to send the women's children to school, their legal status must first be resolved, and the ministry also needs funds for this process, she said.

Along with micro-enterprise loans, school tuition, and legal costs, the ministry also seeks to rent a house for the trafficked women.

"This way they can get together among themselves, and the ministry can visit them at any time to spend time with them, setting up a regular Bible study class or other special activities, such as a medical clinic, hair shop, nail salon, movie night, family night, etc.," Suran said.

Jhang said God has given her a new daughter as a gift from the Lord.

"Now I learned all of this was God's plan, a gift from the Lord," she said. "Whatever happens, I will live in Him and learn about Him till the day of unification of Korea. I will go back to North Korea by then, when the time comes, to build a church there with my daughter, to introduce God and the gospel to my people. I will meet my son there and ask him for forgiveness."

*Name changed for security reasons