By Susie Shin – Contributor SNSPost, and A Shin Dig
The first time I met her, I had instantly recognized her face like she was a little cousin I had grown up with all my life. She pushed into the restaurant through a small sliver between the door and the jamb, brightening the whole room as she beamed with smiles. Her hair short with straight bangs, her small figure surprised me even though I had known by pictures how tiny she was. She always looked 10 years younger than her real age. When she was 16, she looked six, with innocent eyes still pure, as though she saw too much. Malnutrition had stunted the growth of all the North Korean kids and adults a like, resulting in a nation full of tiny people that only existed in a bygone era.
Joon was special and she was the first North Korean orphan I had read about in reports and seen her picture through our missionary at the time. Only 15 years old, her mother had abandoned the family and with no knowledge of her whereabouts, Joon and her father had crossed over to China secretly. Seeing only her shy smirks in video interviews of her, my heart had already been broken for her, but hearing her story, it made me want to protect her from the world. She had lived with her father who was chronically ill and had a drinking problem, and he also physically abused his one and only daughter, I assume from a mixture of drunkenness, hunger, and confusion. Her father had died in a Chinese prison as an illegal immigrant, with a belly full of liquids that poisoned his already frail body.
As a North Korean refugee in China, you have no rights and the inhumanity that can only compare with the treatment they received in the foreign country was their own beloved nation of North Korea. Joon was in greater danger because she was a girl, a beautiful girl and the Chinese were in a shortage for wives. She would never be able to go back to North Korea, so for the immediate future, she was safest with the Crossing Borders caretaker.
She reminisced about the country, while we three girls including a Crossing Borders missionary, laid on the floor with our feet up on the couch. Gabbing about like fifth grade girls at a sleep over, she told us stories of harsh winters and the abuse from her father. How she collected grass and was paid less than a quarter per day. In the spring time, she had recollected with a far a way look in her eyes, as if she were disconnected from her own past, that the melting snow revealed dead bodies that had gone hungry and frozen to death during the harsh winter. Her school days were less education and more of working for the teacher who had made children collect various food scraps during the day, using them as free.
Joon was the kind of girl that people loved instantaneously and this is also why all of us at the organization loved her especially. All our children tugged at our hearts and pained us every day to push forward in our efforts, but Joon was special.
When she was 18, there were eminent dangers and whispers of being sold and bought as a wife for a poor Chinese farmer in rural China. We as an organization did the best we could to find safety for her in an embassy in China. Our communication with her had been dropped off to complete darkness and I had secretly worried for the last two years that she was dead or she was somehow caught by traffickers and her dry, cracked and laboring hands were at work again, but this time, for an old Chinese farmer who, in my mind, had no business being with an 18 year old girl as special as Joon. In the embassy, I imagined her dragging her small feet, her face crestfallen and with no sunlight her complexion a pale green. She was a prisoner for the two years with no work of any movement or progress of her freedom. She had become so desperate when her request to leave the consulate was refused, she had faked committing suicide by cutting her wrists with a knife. The consulate agreed to let her go and she took matters into her own hands and found a broker to escort her out of China and into Southeast Asia. She traveled with a group of 5 through Laos and made it into Thailand where she was admitted into South Korea in 2012. She spent three months in Hanawaon, a re-education program designed to help North Koreans enter modern society. She has received a year worth of cash, along with a small apartment furnished with basic supplies that would last her about three months.
It’s hardly real to hear our friends meeting up with her in her small apartment and in my mind’s eye, I see still a little girl slipping in and out of the subway system. Quietly living her new life, building her dreams to be a doctor (or an accountant) day by day.
- N. Korea Said to Jam Flight Signals (abcnews.go.com)
- 7 Myths About North Korea (americaninnorthkorea.com)
- The Current Round of North Korean Saber Rattling (americaninnorthkorea.com)
- The day after (todayonline.com)
- Our North Korean policy has become based on blind trust (thehill.com)