Hyuk Kim lost his mother when he was 6, then his father when he was 11. After his father died, he lived with a group of six other orphan boys in North Hamgyong province, located at the northern most tip of North Korea.
“We started a fire together, but we still couldn’t sleep because it was so cold,” he said. “We just warmed ourselves with the fire at night and we mainly slept during the day when the sun was shining.
In the punishing winters, Hyuk and other orphans would break into sheds containing electric transformers near factories and markets to find a warm place to sleep. “Many children accidentally end up touching the transformers while sleeping and die,” said Hyuk, who asked that his real name not be used for the safety of family members still in North Korea. As Hyuk dozed off each night curled next to a transformer, he would try to stay as still as possible — willing himself not to move in his sleep. “During the night, we needed to find food to eat. We sometimes stole food from others and gathered food from here and there.”
When something went missing in the neighborhood, the blame automatically fell on Hyuk and his friends, even when they had not been involved. The children would be taken to the police station and tied to chairs, he said. “The police would then automatically accuse us of stealing because they assume we would have stolen since we don’t have parents. They hit us, tie us up, and torture us. There was no one to defend us.”
Hyuk Kim fled North Korea in 2011, nearly a decade after becoming an orphan. Hyuk, now 21, attends Hangyeore Middle-High School in South Korea, where he sleeps in a bed inside a heated dormitory. The school serves three warm, buffet-style meals a day, and students can pile as much food as they’d like on their metal trays. The school, set up by the South Korean government, does not charge tuition.
Most North Koreans escape by crossing the river on the northern border to China. Some street children who flee to China become easy prey to traffickers, according to human rights activists. The girls are sold into the sex trade, or as wives for rural Chinese men. China sends back those escapees they catch, so defectors live in hiding — fearing they’ll be imprisoned and tortured back home.