Song Hong Ryon’s mother fled North Korea in the late 1990s in search of food and work in China, like tens of thousands of other North Korean women did to avoid a famine at home. Many women ended up being sold to poor Chinese farmers as brides, before fleeing again and moving to South Korea, which considers the North part of its territory and therefore embraces North Korean refugees. Many of the children of these marriages, if they’re able to reunite with their mothers in the South, are then alienated and frustrated as they struggle to navigate a strange culture, cut off from friends and many of their relatives.
North Korean mothers lived in China in constant fear of being captured and repatriated to the North, where they could face torture and lengthy detention. When they made the risky trip to South Korea, they often left their children behind in China. The lucky ones, after getting jobs and saving money in South Korea, arranged for their children and husbands to travel to the country. But some children were abandoned, or their fathers refused to leave their hometowns and move to a place where they had no relatives or friends.
Three years after her arrival from China, Song Hong Ryon a half-North Korean, half-Chinese 19-year-old has made only two South Korean-born friends and says she’s often been hurt by little things, like when people ask if she’s from China because of her accent.
Song said she was 10 when her mother left their home in the northeastern Chinese city of Yanji in 2010. A year later, her father also went to South Korea, leaving her with her grandparents. She only reunited with her parents in 2016 in South Korea after a six-year separation.
Last December, her mother died of lung cancer. “I came to blame God,” said Song, a devout Christian. “I asked why this had to happen to me.”
Song’s bilingual ability helped her receive special admission to a university near Seoul. Her first semester starts in March, and she’s excited and nervous about meeting her mostly South Korea-born classmates.