The day that Suji became an orphan she was standing with her older sister at the river that separated North Korea from China. Their mother couldn’t return for them nor could they follow her into the dangerous tide separating them. Wandering, broke, and hungry, it wasn’t long before the young girls were picked up by North Korean authorities and taken to a nearby orphanage for “street children.” Suji, suffering from health issues including malnourishment, ear infections, and eye disease, soon found herself in and out of various health clinics with the help of her sister. At five years old, Suji’s home now was the orphanage, and her sister was her only lifeline.
Suji was eight when a man, whom she still refers to as “father,” came for her. Despite a home and someone new to take care of her, she returned to the orphanage recounting that she missed the freedom it offered. As years changed so did the orphanage; new management turned whatever comfort the safe-haven offered into an ominous nightmare. Abusive and greedy, the headmistress deprived the children of Chinese aid in order to make more money for herself. At eighteen Suji was sent off to a collective farm to work as an unpaid laborer. There she was ridiculed for having been abandoned as a child and barred from joking, laughing, and entertaining herself. Suji was routinely abused by the farm’s headmistress and other workers, and was even accused of sleeping with the border guards near their village.
Meanwhile Suji’s sister had successfully made the harrowing escape across the border to China, and when she invited Suji to defect and live with her, Suji was ready to leave her life in North Korea behind. She eventually crossed the border and stayed with her sister’s family in China for several months. There, after over a decade of separation, she reunited with her mother and younger half-brother and together they escaped China through LiNK’s network and made it safely to South Korea.