Orphaned and homeless in North Korea
04:37 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Yoon Hee spent 10 years on the streets in North Korea after abandonment

North Korean orphans describe harsh living conditions

Many children who defect end up in South Korean boarding schools

Seoul, South Korea CNN  — 

The first time Yoon Hee was abandoned, she was an infant.

She was born in a village near North Korea’s sacred Mount Baekdu, where the country’s lore claims its founder, Kim Il Sung, led the fight for independence and his oldest son, Kim Jong Il, was born.

But the similarities between Yoon Hee and her homeland’s rulers end there.

Six months after her birth, her parents divorced and left Yoon Hee in the care of a friend.

The second time she was abandoned, Yoon Hee was 8 and had gone back to live with her mother.

One day, her mother told her she had somewhere to go. “She never came back,” Yoon Hee said.

Yoon Hee had no choice but to live alone in North Korea. So she did what many abandoned North Korean children do – living on the streets, nearly freezing to death in the winters, begging for mercy, plucking grass for food and crying so hard at night only the pain in her face could stifle her tears.

Yoon Hee stayed in the same neighborhood as her mother in the city of Hyesan, hoping they could live together again.

“I sometimes ran into her on the streets,” Yoon Hee said, “but I couldn’t ever get a warm feeling from her.”

One time when they met, Yoon Hee said, “she told me she was already having a hard time living by herself, so she couldn’t live with me.”

But Yoon Hee was undeterred.

“I had a hope.”

U.S. law aimed at helping North Korean orphans

Death by electrocution

Amid tensions in the Korean peninsula, much of the focus has fallen on deciphering the next moves of Pyongyang’s new leader, Kim Jong Un.

But all this belies a humanitarian crisis in North Korea, a country that boasts of its military strength and nuclear capabilities and yet has no place for homeless orphans.

“There are many children like me who die,” said Hyuk Kim, who fled North Korea in 2011, nearly a decade after becoming an orphan.