The tragic story of this group of youngsters aged between 15 and 23 takes us back a few years when one by one they managed to cross the heavily-guarded border from North Korea into China to search for food. Most of them were orphans, while others had a parent unable or unwilling to look after them.
The youngsters survived by foraging for scraps in trashcans. Fish bones and discarded rice were mixed to make a porridge, while rodents were considered a luxury. When M.J., a South Korean missionary living in China, first met some of them in December 2009, they had frostbite on their hands and toes from living in an old abandoned building where temperatures plummeted to as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius. Some of them had injuries from beatings by security guards and merchants when they were caught stealing food.
“These kids were suffering from malnutrition and disease,” recalled M.J. “They had been living in quarters with bad sanitation … also they all seemed to have suffered in one form or another from tuberculosis. Because they were suffering from malnutrition, their growth was stunted.”
“This one child used to live with his father,” he explained. “One day his father went into a North Korean military base trying to find food but was caught and beaten to death on the spot. The child witnessed this … his mother then told him not to come home and threw rocks at him to keep him away.”
Missionary M.J. and his wife offered to help the youngsters leave China for Laos — a landlocked country in South-East Asia — and then onto a third country to claim asylum. It is a route that is well traveled by defectors, and the missionary couple had already helped other North Koreans escape to a better life that way.
“Pack your bags you’re going to South Korea.” These are the words these nine young North Korean defectors had waited years to hear, having traveled thousands of miles. This is what they were told by authorities in Laos, to where they had fled.
M.J. said they were so happy they all shouted for joy. Years in hiding seemed to finally be over. But the bitter truth of the situation soon became clear.
Later, the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, said the group had been sent back to North Korea via China.