Heo Yeong-hui, who fled North Korea in 2014, paid smugglers to try to bring her husband and son through China to reunite in South Korea.
Her husband was a trombone player in North Korea who liked to whistle the Irish ballad “Danny Boy” as a private serenade for his wife. His son gained a medical degree in Pyongyang and wanted to become a professor.
Sometime late last year, the two men disappeared into the North Korean gulags that hold a special place of punishment for defectors caught by Chinese authorities and who are then sent back over the border.
Now Heo has agreed to tell her story to The Washington Post, abandoning the normal cloak of anonymity used by defectors worried that speaking openly could endanger relatives back home. She is taking a chance. Her voice and others like hers, she believes, are needed to shape the debate over North Korea’s future and efforts to hold the regime accountable.
It’s impossible to put a precise number on North Korean defectors sent back by China. Most groups, including the Database Center, say it could be in the hundreds of thousands since the 1990s. China has resisted international calls to end the repatriations despite international pressure.
A 2014 U.N. report said those returned could face being “forcibly ‘disappeared’ into political prison camps, imprisoned in ordinary prisons or even summarily executed.”