Yoon Ha's Story: Part 2 - Life in China
This is the second part of a three-part story. Read part one about the hardships Yoon Ha experienced growing up in North Korea that led her to escape. Part three follows this part with her experience resettling in South Korea.
The couple who helped me escape into China brought me to a house that same night after we crossed the river. There they told me about my options. They said I could work in a restaurant somewhere in China. However, there would be a high risk that I would be caught by the Chinese police and get sent back to North Korea. I already knew that if you get sent back to North Korea from China, you could be severely punished by the North Korean regime.
They said there was another way, which would be safer; I could "marry" a Chinese man. They told me my Chinese husband would protect me from getting caught by the Chinese police. So it seemed that this was the best choice I could make. I had already come to China and I didn’t want to go back to North Korea. I was prepared to do anything to have a better life, so I told the couple that I would live with a Chinese man.
The next morning the couple took me to a car and we started driving.
In the car, I started getting scared. The only thing I knew was that I was going to live with a Chinese man I had never met, and I was just hoping that my life would somehow get better through the marriage. After driving for a while, we arrived in a small city in China. There I met some Chinese people who turned out to be family members of the man I would marry.
I saw one of them give money to the couple who had brought me there. It was then that I realized that I had been sold.
A part of me still felt I could do anything to have a better life. But it didn’t feel good to be sold like an object. Even to this day, there are so many North Korean women being trafficked like I was. This kind of trafficking is now an industry.
I also felt selfish for leaving my mother and sister without letting them know. I came all this way so that I could have a better life, but I missed them a lot. I didn’t know what would happen next or how the Chinese man would treat me. At that point, I wanted to run away, but it was too late and there was nowhere to go. It was a small town in the country and I didn’t know anything, including the Chinese language.
Without having a proper wedding, I started living with the Chinese man - I don’t even want to call him my husband. It was frustrating not knowing any Chinese. And since I was sold into the marriage, I didn’t love the man. So it was really hard for me to live with him.
Despite all of this, I would eventually have my first daughter with him.
He and his family farmed for a living and were very poor. His family didn’t treat me well. They made me do all sorts of hard work on the farm and they would say bad things about me. Sometimes I even got hit. I wasn’t familiar with the area and couldn’t speak the language very well for the first couple of years. And there was always the danger of getting caught by the Chinese police and sent back to North Korea.
I cried a lot whenever I was by myself. I knew I had to keep enduring it for my daughter but it was so tough.
I started hearing from some people around me that I could live safely and freely if I could make it to South Korea. I didn’t want to leave my daughter, but I couldn’t keep living this life without freedom. So I decided to run away, hoping that I could come back for my daughter later.
I soon discovered that it would cost me a lot of money to find people who could take me to South Korea. I had no money, so I ended up getting sold to another Chinese man in order to survive.
Living with the second Chinese man was even worse than with the first one. I still had to do a lot of hard farming work and he was always watching me. He was suspicious that I was going to try to run away. When he went to work he brought me to his workplace so he could still watch me. And he was not kind to me. Whenever I got sick, he didn’t care.
I felt so unloved and suppressed.
Soon, I was pregnant with my second daughter. All the while, my desire to go to South Korea kept growing. I thought about giving up on my unborn daughter, knowing that I couldn’t be a good mother to her while living like this in China. And I knew it would be even harder for me to leave after I gave birth to the baby. But I didn’t want to leave another child of mine for my own freedom.
After hearing from some people that I could raise my child with support from the government in South Korea, I started having hope. I dreamt about living there with my baby. So I looked for opportunities to run away from the second Chinese man, even though he was always watching me. At some point, I met another North Korean woman who lived in my town and who had also been sold into a marriage. She said she could connect me to people in a different city who could help me go to South Korea.
When I was eight months pregnant and my stomach was so big, the Chinese man didn’t watch me as much as he had before. Maybe he thought my body was too heavy to run away. So one day I left home, telling him that I was going to my friend’s house. But actually, I was going to another city to meet people who would connect me to LiNK’s network.
When I was about to leave the town, however, I got caught by the Chinese man. He made me sit behind him on his motorcycle and was taking me back to his house. Riding on the back of the motorcycle, my hat got blown off my head by the wind. I asked him to stop so I could pick it up. It was my favorite hat. He said, “No, we aren’t going to stop. Forget about the hat.”
At that moment, my whole heart and body were telling me, “Do not give up on what you deserve. You deserve to have a simple hat and you deserve to live in freedom like a human being.”
I don’t know how I did it but I jumped off the motorcycle while it was moving. Luckily he wasn’t going too fast and I landed on my back so the baby didn’t get hurt, and I was okay other than scratching my forehead while rolling on the ground.
I got up and started walking toward where the hat fell. The man asked me where I was going and I told him that I was going to get my hat. His motorcycle had lost balance and fallen after I jumped. He didn’t even ask how I was as he started to inspect it for damage. I realized this was my opportunity to run away again. So I grabbed my hat and started running up into the nearby mountains.
I kept going up and up until I was near the top where I could see the road, the man, and his motorcycle. I hid there for a few hours, scared of getting caught by him again. I actually saw him driving around to find me. So I climbed further up and over the other side of the mountain.
Being eight months pregnant, my body was very heavy. But I had to keep moving to get away from the man. I made it over the mountain.
I started heading to the city by taking different vehicles. One time I got on a truck that was transporting dogs. Since all the space was taken by the dogs, I had to sit on one of the guys’ laps in the front seat.
Finally, after some long bus rides that made me feel sick, I connected with LiNK’s network.
Continue reading with Part 3.
The Red Box: Misunderstandings and Stereotypes about North Koreans
For North Korean refugees, resettling in a new society comes with many challenges. One of these challenges is overcoming the stereotypes about North Korea and the North Korean people.
In the latest episode of The Red Box, our North Korean friends and 2019 LiNK Advocacy Fellows talk about the struggle of of facing stereotypes after resettling in South Korea.
Watch as Jeongyol, Joy, Dasom, and Ilhyeok answer your questions in The Red Box Series!
Read the transcript of this episode below!
All: Welcome to the Red Box!
Are there any misunderstandings about the North Korean people that make you feel uncomfortable?
Joy: When I first came to South Korea, was working part-time at a convenience store. I was still very young and had a very heavy North Korean accent.
In South Korea, when a customer enters the part-time employees don't really greet them. But I used to greet the customers standing and say "Welcome!" so people would ask me where I'm from.
I'd tell them that I'm from North Korea. They'd say "oh really?" After they get their stuff and put them on the counter, they'd asked me if I ever had jjajangmyun or pork in North Korea? They'd ask me these types of questions. Some people ask because they don't know but sometimes they ask questions that insinuate that we were all so poor in North Korea. Not everyone in North Korea is like that. There's people who live well too
Jeongyol: If someone asked me that, I’d tell them I might've lived a wealthier life there [in North Korea].
Joy: So those types of questions made me feel a little uncomfortable.
Jeongyol: A lot of people think like that.
Dasom: People think that all North Koreans are poor, ignorant, and uneducated. People have told me that even though I must have starved and lived poorly in North Korea, I don't look the part.
Maybe some people did or didn't have enough food to eat. There are poor people and there are rich people too. Every country is the same — it’s the same in South Korea too. There are rich, poor, and homeless people in South Korea too. I don't think it's right to judge someone like that. It made me feel very uncomfortable
Jeongyol: When I was in high school, there was a soccer match between North Korea and South Korea. But all of a sudden they asked me which team I'm cheering for. So I was startled by the question.
Should I say I'm cheering for North Korea or South Korea? What's my identity?
Even though I'm living in South Korea as a South Korean citizen, they didn't recognize the fact that I'm also South Korean. That we were the same people.
So at the time I answered, "I'm not cheering for either team. I don't care who wins. I’m just watching the game for fun.” It went over smoothly but afterward I kept thinking about it. But now that I think about it…It wasn't my choice to be born in North Korea.
Jeongyol: I could've been born in the U.S. but somehow I was born in North Korea.
Anyone could've been born in North Korea.
It's not anyone's fault. So from that moment on, I became confident. I am just who I am.
Ilhyeok: I have this older friend from China. During holidays like in January, he'd always ask me if I am visiting my hometown. Whenever he asks me that question, I want to be able to tell him that I'm am going [home] but I can't because I can't go back so I just don’t answer him. When he asked me if I'm going home, I just wished that I could return home one day.
It's heartbreaking not being able to go home.
During Chuseok and New Year's Day, those two holidays are when I miss home the most.
Joy: One uncomfortable question for me was when I was in school or met people was when they asked me why there's no riot or uprising in North Korea. Sometimes people ask because they really don't know but sometimes they insinuate that we're cowards.
And with that viewpoint, they ask why we won't revolt against the government. I try to explain but they still insist and say, ”But you guys still should have done something.” That makes me a little sad.
In North Korea, there's a system of monitoring each other. So if one person says something bad, they'd get reported right away and taken.
Jeongyol: In South Korea there were a lot of civil riots so they ask why we didn't do anything in North Korea.
Joy: But it's a very different situation.
Jeongyol: The system doesn't allow it.
What also made me uncomfortable was if I did something wrong, people would blame it because I'm North Korean.
They say things like, “It's because she's North Korean.” That made me upset. Other people say bad things and make mistakes too. But because of one mistake they say all North Koreans are like that and that I wouldn't know things or be able to do things because I'm from North Korea.
I hated hearing that so I wouldn't tell anyone that I was from North Korea.