Children of North Korean mothers: ‘For all my scars, I can still smile’

Inside the Durihana International School and shelter in Seoul, a choir of defectors’ children practiced with teenage volunteers from South Korean families. Most of the 60 children in the shelter were born in China, to a North Korean mother who had defected and ended purchased by and indentured to Chinese men.

“I am not alone,” they sang. “For all my scars, I can still smile.”

“Making the refugee children smile has been one of the hardest parts of the choir practice,” said Kim Hee-churl, the general manager of the Korean Federation for Choral Music, who volunteered to coach the children. “This is more like a therapy session to instill them with self-confidence.”

Da-hee, 13, who was born in South Korea, used to get into fistfights with classmates who called her a “commie” because both of her parents had fled the North. By the time she was brought to the shelter in August, she had been living on the streets, smoking, drinking and stealing coins from laundromats.

Mi-yeon, 15, grew up in Mudanjiang in northeastern China, where she often saw her alcoholic Chinese father beat up her North Korean mother. Amid the family violence, Mi-yeon learned that her father had “bought” her mother for 6,500 renminbi (about $943). Her father once reported her mother as an illegal migrant to the Chinese police, so she was sent back to North Korea. After she was released from prison there and made her way back to China, he bought her again.

Mi-yeon tagged along when her mother fled China with the help of smugglers in 2014. On their way to South Korea via Laos, the two met other North Korean women fleeing the Chinese men who had purchased them. One woman said her “husband” showed her off by forcing her to appear naked before his friends.

“Many Chinese men treated their North Korean wives nicely, buying them identification documents, but others treated their women like slaves or toys,” Mi-yeon said. “I wanted my mom to live free from my father and free from the fear of getting caught by the Chinese police and sent back to North Korea again.”

In South Korea, Mi-yeon had trouble making friends in school after rumors spread that she was from China. Her mother worked overtime and hardly had time to look after her, and she began seeing another man. So Mi-yeon came to the shelter in 2016.

In a barely audible voice, Won-hyok, 14, added that he and his younger brother preferred the shelter to living with their father, his new wife and their baby.

[The New York Times]

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