Portrait: North Korean Orphan Care in China Part 1

KyungTae during a visit in 2012.

KyungTae during a visit in 2012.

The following is an excerpt from our Orphan Growth Fund update we sent late in 2017. The Orphan Growth Fund is a subscription program that Crossing Borders runs. All funds donated to OGF are earmarked to benefit of half North Korean children like KyungTae, whose story is below.

KyungTae is a teenager who has grown up in China as the child of a North Korean defector. His exact date of birth is unknown, but his father’s family estimates he was born in 2000.

KyungTae’s story is not uncommon among his generation of half-Chinese, half-North-Koreans–the aftermath of various Chinese and North Korean policies. These children, even if they were born in China, often feel the direct effects of North Korean oppression. Crossing Borders, in response to this growing need, has created group homes and caretaking services for the children of North Korean refugees.

KyungTae’s mother, YA, was in the military during her past life as a North Korean citizen. But following the infamous Great North Korean Famine of the 1990s, YA, like hundreds of thousands of others like her, fled North Korea to neighboring China in search of food, hope and a better life. It is estimated that 1 to 3 million North Koreans died of starvation during the famine’s peak years of 1995-1998.

China, though an ally to the DPRK, was also suffering from a stark gender imbalance following the One-Child Policy. With an increasingly male-dominated population and thus a shortage of brides, China’s traffickers welcomed many of the North Korean refugees crossing the border by tricking or kidnapping them into slavery and selling them to the highest bidder.

YA was immediately sold as a forced bride and married off to a man the same age as her father. However, despite the 45-year age gap between husband and wife, KyungTae’s parents were happy and raised their son together in a home free of violence or abuse.

“We all cried at the meeting place.”

In 2009, YA was captured with 26 other refugees and imprisoned with other defectors, awaiting their deportation. A total of 44 refugees were rounded up in a two-day raid, the largest this village had ever seen.

As husbands and mothers-in-law gathered in front of the police station and waited through the night, it became clear that this raid was ordered from higher ranks. Their bribes, regardless of the sum, would not be enough to save their loved ones, or to even see them one last time.

Our staff joined the crowds of family members mourning their mothers, wives, and daughters at the nearby KFC and “we all cried at the meeting place,” according to a report from our staff.

Defectors who have lived abroad for more than 10 years, like YA, are judged harshly and often sent to the most austere re-education camps. Many become disabled as a result of their beatings, though some have escaped in the past.

For four years, neither our staff nor YA’s family members had any confirmation of whether or not she was alive, if she had survived the camp, or how long her sentence would be.

Praying for KyungTae and his family in 2010.

Praying for KyungTae and his family in 2010.

“Sister, please take care of my KyungTae”

Through a network of underground contacts, in 2015, our staff got a message through to YA, who had just been released after four years of hard labor in a camp, and was now back in her hometown.

A port town of about 400,000 residents, ChongJin makes up one of the many dark spots seen from space. With little to no electricity, much of North Korea is pitch black after sunset, leaving inhabitants vulnerable to looting and theft at the hands of armed military troops. Due to ChongJin’s location and distance from the border, messages are few and far between, often requiring coordination between several staff members and Chinese nationals.

Severely anemic and recovering from years of malnutrition and abuse, YA wrote a letter for her former caretakers in China who had never stopped searching for news of her wellbeing.

In her letter, YA quickly addresses the facts. She was released in December 2014. She describes her family’s health and confirms that she was imprisoned with another Crossing Borders refugee. But at the core of her message, she expresses gratitude. She is thankful for not being forgotten. She thanks her “sister” for the aid she can send in the form of food, medicine and money. And most importantly, she asks for photos of KyungTae and begs, “Sister, please take care of my KyungTae.”

Based on the details of her letter as well as confirmations from other contacts who visit her village for business, we were able to begin researching options for a second escape.

YA, focused on regaining her physical strength, also set her sights on reuniting with her son and husband in China.  To do this, she would have to pay a broker to smuggle her across the border – a dangerous and expensive option.

YA’s “sister,” who was a staff member of Crossing Borders, sent her clothes and the little money she had—only a fraction of what it would cost to pay the broker’s upfront fee—and waited for news.

The next installment of KyungTae’s story will be posted next week. For more information about the Orphan Growth Fund, click here.