On March 18, four women defectors of North Korea gave a powerful reminder that as the world turns its attention to North Korea’s alarming nuclear activities, women and other North Korean citizens are silently suffering in the clutches of the brutal regime.
The women made history by speaking at the first event of the United Nation Commission on the Status of Women that focused specifically on the status of North Korean women. Ambassadors from around the world, including Ambassador Samantha Power of the United States, Ambassador Oh Joon of the Republic of Korea, Ambassador Motohide Yoshikawa of Japan and Ambassador Peter Wilson of the United Kingdom, hosted the event.
Every day in North Korea, people suffer from an almost total lack of human rights. Families wither away due to starvation and thousands are thrown into political prison camps for anything that displeases the Kim Jong-un regime. Ambassador Power, quoting the Commission of Inquiry, expressed that within the most repressive country in the world, women are still the most vulnerable. These women’s testimonies are meant to give a voice to the millions in North Korea who are not allowed to have their own.
Kim Young-soon said she spent nine years in a political prison camp, along with her family. She found out after she was released that she had been imprisoned because of her friendship with a hidden mistress of Kim Jong-il. Of her entire family, only Ms. Kim and her son survived the camp, and her son still lives with crippling mental disabilities because of the scarring experiences and torture he faced in North Korea. Ms. Kim says, “If you really want to establish peace in the world, I think it’s as urgent as dealing with North Korea’s nuclear issue to resolve or get rid of all the political prison camps in North Korea.”
Lucia Jang’s first husband sold their son, without her knowing, to a wealthy North Korean family for a small amount of money and some bars of soap. She became pregnant a second time by a man she fell in love with in China, but she had to return to North Korea because the father’s family did not want the child. After returning, North Korean authorities in the prison camp where she was detained demanded that she abort the baby. Not wanting to lose a second child, she received help from her father and permanently escaped North Korea.
Lee Hyeon-seo is a young woman who describes living in North Korea like living in another universe. She recalled the harsh abuses women face not only in North Korea but also in China, where they are commonly trafficked as slaves or sent back to North Korea.
Now a young mom, Kim Eun-ju lived most of her life never thinking she would become a mother because she lived in constant fear that she wouldn’t see the next day. Her family was struck hard by a famine in the 1990s. In 1997, her father died from starvation. One day, in desperation her mother and sister went to go find food, leaving Kim Eun-ju at home. Days later, thinking she would die of hunger before her family returned, Ms. Kim wrote her will as a mere 11 -year-old. Fortunately, her mother came back that day, though empty-handed. They were then forced to live homeless. In the winter, they fled to China to escape starvation only to have their struggles of hunger be replaced with struggles of human trafficking. Chinese authorities sent Ms. Kim back to North Korea where she experienced horrifying treatment upon return. Describing North Korea, Ms. Kim says, “to them, you are not human.”
As the Kim Jong-un regime continues to strip North Koreans of their dignity, it’s time for the rest of the world to step up with a united mission to preserve the value of humanity. It’s time to remind North Koreans that they are humans, extraordinary humans, and they are not alone.
As the United States and other governments consider their policy approach toward North Korea, they must prioritize the protection of human rights and ally themselves with the victims of the regime. China needs to stand by its commitment to protect refugees. Stop treating these victims as criminals. Stop sending them back to their misery. And as North Korean women continue to suffer as the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, their condition must be paid great attention. Many women with stories like these defectors’ bravely fight the most oppressive government in the world, and now others must commit to stand and fight with them.
• Ann Buwalda, an immigration attorney in Northern Virginia, founded the U.S. branch of the Jubilee Campaign in the early 1990s. She and Nia Emerson, a staff member of the Jubilee Campaign, prepared this article on behalf of the North Korea Freedom Coalition.