In North Korea, a brutal choice

Editor’s Note: This is part of a look at North Korea from the vantage point of some of those who have escaped and defected. See an accompanying story about an artist now living in South Korea.

Story highlights

Song Ee Han made a difficult choice when escaping from North Korea

There are about 130 refugees from North Korea living in the United States

North Koreans have faced famine and crackdown on dissent

Washington, D.C. CNN  — 

During a sleepless night, Song Ee Han agonized over a decision: Was she willing to leave her youngest child behind while she and her daughters escaped North Korea?

The next morning, Han knelt beside her only surviving son, 5-year-old BoKum, searching for the right words. The boy looked half his age, his distended belly protruding awkwardly from his tiny frame. He was weakened and fatigued from their journey. They had stopped at a friend’s house less than halfway to the border, and Han and her daughters were too small or weak to carry him.

“Why are you taking my sisters, but not me?” he wailed.

“Don’t worry,” Han said. She promised him rice and cookies. “We will come get you in five days.” They counted to five together, first on her fingers, which were contorted and scarred from torture. Then they counted to five on BoKum’s scrawny fingers.

As she departed with her daughters, Han turned and saw her son watching. He waved enthusiastically, cheered by the promise that they would return soon.

Han whipped her head back immediately. She didn’t want him to see her tears.

Scars of a former life

There are no pictures or heirlooms from North Korea in Han’s Virginia apartment today.

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Crosses adorn every room – one hangs from the thermometer, another sits on atop the TV set, a plastic beaded cross dangles from the kitchen curtains.

A woman of slight frame, Han wears fuchsia lipstick and a steely expression. Her wavy black hair in a careful bun covers the scars on the left side of her head where she was beaten by North Korean soldiers with a wooden rod. The beating shattered the parietal bone in her skull into four pieces.

Han had been battered, kicked, dragged, lectured and starved in a country she once called home. Her husband died in police custody. She mourned the loss of two children who starved to death. She was helpless to grant the last wish of her mother, who at age 76 died before her eyes, having sought just one steamed potato.

The images distributed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are often of elaborate military ceremonies, synchronized dancers and adored leaders. But they belie a harsher truth of food shortages and political oppression.

North Korea recently agreed to halt its nuclear and missile program in exchange for U.S. food aid. The deal came in the midst of the country’s first transfer of power in 17 years following the death of Kim Jong Il in December. His 28-year-old son, Kim Jong Un, is the new leader. But then North Korea announced it would launch a satellite, using ballistic missile technology – a plan that would contravene the earlier agreement.

Although Han and her daughters live some 7,000 miles away, they still bear the scars of life back home.

When a country is led by dictators, it’s the ordinary people who pay the price and are forced to make gut-wrenching decisions.

Their journey from rural North Korea to a tidy, white-walled suburban apartment outside Washington – by way of an underground, 10-year existence in China – was tumultuous.

Han and her daughters, JinHye Jo, 24, and EunHye Jo, 20, are among about 130 refugees from North Korea who have settled in the United States – a country they were told was their enemy.

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Defectors’ stories are often the only way the world learns about what happens inside the reclusive country. But many who escaped North Korea choose to remain silent, fearing repercussions for family members left back home.

Many who do speak out, including Han and her daughters, use pseudonyms (as they do in this article) to avoid detection by the North Korean government.

There’s no one left to punish, though, when Han and her daughters talk about their family in North Korea.

They’ve all starved to death.

Of mice and grass

Food became scarce in North Korea in the 1990s following the demise of the Soviet Union, the country’s main financial backer, and prolonged drought.

Han and her family went from getting government rice rations to foraging for food like hunter-gatherers. They stripped pine trees, plucked grass and ate every part of each corn plant they could find, including the cob and the skin – which they ground into tasteless cakes.

Han grew up in Hamgyong-bukto, singing songs glorifying the North Korean government.

Han, her mother, her husband and their four children were living in Hamgyong-bukto, the northernmost province of North Korea.

From birth, North Koreans are taught to work hard and love their leaders like gods. They learn the Korean alphabet using references to the country’s founder and “Great Leader,” Kim Il Sung, and his son, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il. Childhood melodies glorify the state and the ruling Workers’ Party.

“I believed the party kept us alive,” Han said. “I was very thankful. I was constantly trained to believe that without the party, we wouldn’t exist.”

She did not doubt the leaders, even as her family went hungry. It was the United States and South Korea’s fault, they were told, that they had to hunt frogs, rats and even snakes.

They ate virtually anything that moved. One day, Han discovered five newborn mice beneath a rock; her mother called them “great medicine.”

Han cooked the mice, but no matter how long she boiled them, their pink bodies stayed intact. So she molded the soft lumps onto a spoon and offered it to her second-youngest child, EunHye, who at 5 was so malnourished that her black hair had turned yellow and stiff.

“How do you expect a child to eat that?” her husband, Hak Moon Jo, asked Han. “Would you eat that?”

But EunHye swallowed the spoonful of boiled rodents without hesitation.

“My heart was torn into shreds,” Han said.

All four children’s growth was so stunted that their heads appeared too big for their emaciated bodies. Han’s second-eldest child, JinHye, could count every bone on her rib cage.

The family would try to go to bed at 5 or 6 p.m. because sleep meant escaping hunger.

“You can’t sleep,” JinHye recalled. “You think of meat, rice and what it’s like to have food in your stomach. You’re constantly thinking of food, so you lose your mind.”

Han could no longer endure it.

In 1997, she and her husband decided to cross into China in search of food. Their plan was to get food from Jo’s nephew in China, then return home to their children. Although it was risky, Han said it was the only choice.

“I had to feed my kids,” she said. “I couldn’t just stand still. I couldn’t stand by and watch my kids lay there and die. We were pulling and eating grass. It was maddening.”

The first time Han and her husband snuck into China and hid at a relatives’ home, she got her first glimpse of a rice cooker, full of steaming, hot white rice.

Han wondered, “Is there a world like this?” There was no white rice in North Korea, scarcely any electricity and definitely no rice cookers for ordinary people.

“We didn’t have anything,” she said.

The trip lasted a week, and they returned home to North Korea carrying sacks bulging with rice.

Han and her husband would make the journey two more times.

Days after they had returned from their last trip, Jo was arrested. Han believes they had been seen and reported by a neighbor or informant.

Han never saw her husband again.

The next day, officers came for her, too. In custody, she was forced to kneel in front of police, who kicked her, beat her with a wooden rod and smashed her skull. They lay her hands flat on the cement floor and stomped on them. But without explaining why, they released her. Han suspects they may have known she was three months pregnant.

She asked the officers about her husband but got no answers. She later heard he died on a prisoner train after being forced to stand with his wrists tied over his head for 10 days without food or water.

Han returned home to a house full of hungry children, watched by her mother. The rice she and her husband had stashed throughout the house had been confiscated by police.

Han eventually gave birth to a boy, but he starved to death two months later. In desperation, Han’s eldest daughter left home to find food for the family, but she disappeared. The family thinks she may have been trafficked to China. Then Han’s mother died.

In less than a year, Han’s family of eight had been cut in half.

The land of cookies and cell phones

A petite woman with chiseled high cheekbones and piercing eyes, Han is warm, almost motherly to her guests in Virginia.

“Cookies?” she asks, offering a tub of Trader Joe’s chocolate chip minis.

JinHye Han talks on her cell phone as she looks through the aisles at the local Korean grocery.

Although Han and her girls no longer forage for food – they drive their Hyundai to H-mart, a Korean grocery, or Trader Joe’s – life in America requires a different kind of effort.

Today, Han works overnight shifts, taking care of senior citizens for a home health care agency. Her life is like that of a suburban soccer mom on speed as she juggles rides for her youngest daughter, gets to work, goes to church and meets demands at home. Exhausted from her nighttime work, she prepares rice for the girls’ dinner and tries to sleep during the day.

She rarely sees her children together during the week because they both work full-time office jobs at the same health care agency and attend night school.

When Han received training to become a home caregiver for seniors, she cried, said Eun Kyung Hong, the CEO of CarePeople Home Health. Han was shocked that a government program like Medicaid provided seniors with caregivers to help them cook and bathe, and that seniors also received Social Security. When she learned all this, Han wept and told Hong her mother had starved to death in North Korea.

About the only time Han’s family spends together is when they head to church. They often spend entire Sundays there, attending Bible study, worship services and youth groups. JinHye and EunHye exchange texts with their friends between services.

During prayers, the three women stand together as a unit, praying, clutching their leather Bibles in their small hands.

“I am so thankful,” Han said. “In the U.S., it’s such a good place. God is good. He’s present in our lives.”

Her daughter, EunHye sums it up: “I was born in hell, but now live in heaven.”

Mrs. Han’s choice

In North Korea, after a person is imprisoned, the whole family is implicated and tarnished. The arrest of Han’s husband meant neighbors and the police were highly suspicious of her family.

On a July night in 1998, two officers came to Han’s door and told the family to leave. If they didn’t, the police threatened to burn down their house.

Without a home, she asked the men, where would she and her children live? How would they survive?

“We did everything for the party, as we were told,” Han said. “The end result was our family died. I could not believe in North Korea anymore.”

The choice was between her country and her children.

“If my kids were to survive, I would have to find my own way,” she said. “As long as we left this country, my kids would have a chance.”

On July 18, Han gathered her three surviving kids – JinHye, then 11, EunHye, 7, and BoKum, 5 – and started an approximate 100-mile walk to the Chinese border.

Weak from malnutrition and injuries, Han hobbled slowly.

After the first night, they stopped in a village to visit Han’s friend, a widow she trusted. The woman looked at Han’s malnourished state and asked how the family could survive the journey. Two mountain crossings and the Tumen River lay ahead.

While the youngest girl, EunHye, could walk without help, her brother BoKum could not. Han and her eldest daughter, JinHye, were both too weak to carry him.

Han would have to risk the whole family getting caught or leave her son behind. But how could a mother leave her child?

She took a night to think about it. “I couldn’t sleep,” Han said, her mind tossing between two competing thoughts: “I would have to carry him. How could I carry him?”

Han and her daughters became Christians through underground missionaries during their time in China.

The next morning, her friend said, “Leave your son with me and I will take care of him.”

Han agreed, and planned to return in five days to bring him to China after getting her daughters safely across. In exchange, she promised to bring the widow rice and food.

As the family parted, BoKum clung to his mother, wrapping his twiglike arms around her legs. “Why aren’t you taking me?” he asked.

She calmly explained they would get food and return in five days, just like she and her husband had done before. To soothe him, Han gave him a ground corn cake.

“I regret that I only gave him one,” Han said.

She wonders if things would’ve been different if she’d had a second cake to give him.

After two nights of walking, Han and her daughters crossed into China. There, the family hid in fields and stole squash and corn from farms. Rains flooded the Tumen River, preventing Han from crossing back. She couldn’t swim.

Then Han heard the government was executing citizens who hadn’t voted for Kim Jong Il in a recent election. Han was among them – she’d been in China.

There was no way to call or communicate with the widow taking care of BoKum.

After two months, Han had earned enough cash through small jobs to hire a man to bring BoKum out of North Korea. But he returned empty-handed.

The boy had been abandoned by the widow, the man reported. Neighbors spotted BoKum in a field of reeds, singing a song from a movie that JinHye had taught him. The line he repeated: “When is mother coming?”

A neighbor gave BoKum a bowl of porridge out of pity. He died shortly after eating it – possibly as a result of consuming food too fast while malnourished. “Refeeding syndrome” was often seen among World War II prisoners and Holocaust survivors.

When she heard her son was dead, Han said, “My heart was ripping out of my chest.”

“I was born in this world and I gave birth to children. I have to help my kids survive – that’s the mission of being parents. If they all die, what’s the point of being born?”

An arduous journey to a new home

Han and her daughters hid in China for 10 years. They stayed with her husband’s relatives, then with acquaintances. They also found help from Korean missionaries. Han and the girls learned Chinese and imitated locals’ mannerisms to blend in.

They were caught by Chinese authorities and sent back to North Korea repeatedly – Han and JinHye four times, EunHye twice.

But even in a totalitarian regime, soldiers along the border are hungry enough to take bribes. The girls were sent to orphanages and re-education camps, but each time they escaped or bribed their way back to China.

Phillip Buck befriended Han and her daughters in China and bought their freedom out of North Korea.

While in China, the family was befriended by Phillip Buck, a Korean-American pastor and missionary helping North Korean defectors. When the whole family was repatriated in 2006, Buck paid North Korean security agents $10,000 to let them escape once more.

This time, after hiding in China for two months, Han and her daughters went to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Beijing and asked to live in the United States.

After 16 months of waiting at an apartment provided by UNHCR, their application was granted and they arrived in the States in 2008. They were granted asylum and have become permanent U.S. residents.

They first settled in Seattle, where Buck lives, and began advocating on behalf of North Koreans. But after a year, as their efforts grew, Han’s eldest daughter wanted to live closer to Washington, D.C., where policy is made.

Today, JinHye speaks at universities and D.C.-area events and has testified before Congress about human rights abuses in North Korea.

She told the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission about the choices her family made when they left North Korea – and about her brother who died.

“To this day I am so sorry in my heart for not bringing him with us, and I miss him dearly every day,” she told the panel.

JinHye plans to study theology and become a missionary. She hopes to preach God’s word in North Korea if the country opens up.

Her sister, EunHye, wants to become an international lawyer to help North Korean defectors.

“I want to help people who do not have rights to be able to speak to the world, for their freedom, and for their dreams,” she said.

Mild-mannered and studious, EunHye has Harvard and Princeton pennants taped to the wall in her room. Below them is a list of the best schools for international law.

Their mother speaks at local Korean-American churches to raise awareness about abuses in North Korea. The family has joined the outcry over the forced repatriation of North Korean escapees who are hiding in China.

Han’s desire is to raise two educated daughters who will use their experience in North Korea to help others.

Han radiates pride when showing how many books her daughters have read. JinHye and EunHye both want to devote their time to education, but they have groceries to buy and rent and bills to pay.

Maybe, Han thinks, there is a reason she and her girls have survived.

“We can talk about what happened,” she said. “All my family in North Korea has died. I realized God chose us. Other people cannot talk or their family will suffer.”

Both daughters say there is one woman who made their lives and their ability to dream possible.

“My mother,” EunHye said. “She sacrificed her whole life for us.”