Yoon Hee was born in a village near North Korea’s sacred Mount Baekdu. At 8 years of age, she was abandoned by her mother and did what many abandoned North Korean children do — live 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.
One day, alone and 10 years old, she lay in the snow as the icy winter descended in North Korea. Eventually, Yoon Hee caught what she suspects was typhoid, leaving her in a hell of fire and ice. Although she lay in the snow about two weeks, no one offered help or food.
She tried to muster her energy to sit and wiggle her fingers and toes, but her hands and feet barely budged — they were frozen in place. She could no longer move. Surely, this was it, Yoon Hee thought. She prepared herself. “I am going to die.”
Yoon Hee would become yet another corpse rotting in the street — she had seen the frozen corpses on the roadside because no one bothered to bury bodies of strangers. A voice interrupted her feverish daze. A villager thrust money into Yoon Hee’s hand. Her voice was firm: “You have to survive.”
For a decade, Yoon Hee roamed the streets, slept in crevices and picked rice off the ground that people had dropped. “I appreciated every single grain of rice,” she said.
Every night, she had the same concern: “Where am I going to sleep tonight? How can I survive?”
Yoon Hee learned survival skills fitting of “The Hunger Games” — where to scavenge for food, where to sleep, how to stay warm, how to keep safe. She curled into a fetal position in a nook under the windows of houses.
In North Korea, homeless children like Yoon Hee are called “kotjebes,” or flowering swallows. Like the bird, these children are free to roam, unconstrained by the country’s societal norms.
Yoon Hee attempted her first escape into China in the wintertime, the river at the border frozen, paving the way for a quick escape. In China, she was caught three times by local police and each time, she was sent back to a North Korean prison. She was pummeled with fists, sticks and kicked, Yoon Hee said. But each time, she was released.
In early 2010, she escaped North Korea for the fourth time and eventually met an underground network of Christian activists and missionaries.
The plight of orphans who’ve escaped North Korea caught the attention of U.S. humanitarian groups, who’ve lobbied for years to pave the way for their adoption by Americans and others. In January, President Obama signed the North Korean Child Welfare Act of 2012. The law is aimed primarily at those orphans hiding in China and other countries. Those who make it to South Korea are provided an education, a path to citizenship and even a chance at adoption.