WASHINGTON — A North Korean defector recounted Thursday the “hell” she experienced during a decade full of abuse, starvation and enslavement as an orphan in the rogue nation, a fate that too many children are still experiencing today under the Kim regime.
As part of a weeklong advocacy effort in support of human rights reform in North Korea, Park Ji-Hye told attendees at an event held at the Family Research Council headquarters that she spent time in two different orphanages after her father died of starvation during a famine in the 1990s.
With her mom having been trafficked to China, Park said she knows too well the desperate situation facing North Korean orphans today, as they have no social protections guaranteed by the government and are treated as property in the country that has been ruled by the repressive Kim dynasty over the past 70 years.
“It was just like going through hell for me to live in an orphanage, then running around by myself and being trafficked to China,” Park said through a translator during a 45-minute recounting of her life. “It was a long journey of suffering. I know for sure even now there are people going through the same thing, whether it's in an orphanage or in China.”
While much attention has been paid in the last several years to the fact that thousands of Koreans are worked to death in labor camps, not as much focus has been paid to the human rights abuses being committed in North Korean orphanages, said Suzanne Schulte, head of the North Korea Freedom Coalition and a key organizer behind North Korea Freedom Week.
“I can tell you when we brought the first survivors of the political prison camp to testify [before Congress] in the late 1990s, people did not believe the stories because there were only a few witnesses,” Schulte said.
“Now, there have been hundreds of folks that have been able to escape and testify about the horrible political prison camps that are really death camps for innocent men, women and children. Today, we're facing that same issue except now it is the orphans.”
Schulte, who has been involved in North Korea human rights advocacy for over 20 years, said that many people don’t know what is happening to orphans in North Korea because “there are very few survivors.”
Thursday’s North Korea Freedom Week event at FRC was the first time Park has shared her story on the international stage, according to an event organizer.
Life in two orphanages
Park was born into a family of four children. She has a younger sister, an older sister, and a younger brother and her mother left home on a quest to run a business in hopes of supporting her family. However, Park’s mom ended up being trafficked into neighboring China.
In the 1990s famine spread throughout North Korea. It's been estimated that between 330,000 up to 3 million people died as a result of starvation. One of those people was Park’s father, who worked as a miner.
While her younger sister was adopted and her older sister was allowed to live at her grandmother’s house (before defecting at the age of 13), Park and her younger brother were not as fortunate.
The first orphanage they went to, she said, was a state-run orphanage where countless children were being housed in a three-story building.
“The facility was awful and they didn’t provide any food to children,” she explained. “So many children tried to escape and jumped out of the building.”
Park and her younger brother eventually escaped and fled to their grandmother’s house. During that time, her brother became ill and they both stayed at their grandmother’s house until he recovered before being sent to a second orphanage where they were held for about 10 years.
She said it was a private orphanage run by a married couple. The couple themselves were honored as “heroes” by the Kim regime, she recalled.
According to Park, there were 170 children at the orphanage. Each bedroom housed as many as 30 children, she added.
The family that ran the orphanage also ran a farm at the same time. Park said that a typical day for the orphans started at 4 a.m. as they were forced to work for two hours on the farm.
At 6 a.m., she added, the children would then be forced to march in the streets to wake people up. Following that, they would head back to the orphanage for breakfast.
After breakfast, the school-aged children would go to school while the rest of the children would go back to work in the field.
At school, Park said, the facilities were awful and only one textbook was provided for the whole class. Also, the students were not provided with lunch at the school.
After school, the orphans returned and were forced to go into the mountain to fetch firewood. According to Park, each orphan had a quota to meet. If the orphan didn’t meet his or her quota, they would not be given dinner.
This meant that Park, whose younger brother was only 6 at the time and too weak to carry his weight, had to work doubly hard to ensure that both she and her brother would eat each day.
At night, the children would be called into “self-criticism sessions,” park added.
“Not only did we have to confess what we did wrong that day, we also had to criticize others for what they did wrong,” she remembers. “Since we lived together, we basically took a turn to say, ‘I would criticize you today and you can criticize me tomorrow.’”
“Those who made mistakes, they were scolded and punished,” she continued.
Following the self-criticism session came the “recreation session,” when the children were made to sing and dance.
“But even if the children cried, they had to smile and pretend they were having a good time during singing and dancing,” she said.
It wouldn’t be until about 10 p.m. that children would be allowed to go to bed on most nights, Park explained.
“That is how I lived for about 10 years of my life,” she contended.
The three sons
Park said that manual labor was only part of the problem with the orphanage. The worst part of the orphanage, she recalled, was the three sons of the couple that owned the orphanage.
Although the sons were all married, “they considered the girls in the orphanage as their possession or slave they could use.”
“Whenever they liked, they designated one person. There was no choice for the girls that were designated and anyone who did not fulfill their needs or request, then all the children were summoned. In the morning, we found out the first thing, they would share who was called and who got pregnant by the three sons.”
Park said that the mother who ran the orphanage tried hard to cover up what her sons were doing.
“Most of the time the pregnant girls had an abortion,” Park explained.
Park detailed that one of the son’s tried to abuse her. However, the mother prevented Park from getting abused by the son because Park has family on the outside. She said that children with family on the outside of the orphanage were largely protected from such abuses.
However, Park wasn’t completely shielded from abuse. She recalled a time in which the mother of the orphanage allowed her to borrow a bicycle and go to the market to buy something.
But when she returned, she said that one of the sons summoned all the children because he was furious that the bike was taken without his permission. Park told the son that his mother had allowed her to take the bike. As punishment, the son forced all the children to stand outside barefoot for 30 minutes in the winter cold.
During this time, Park said the son started beating the orphans with his belt.
“He started to beat me also with the belt but the female owner came in and screamed at her son,” she said.
For the next month, the female owner allowed Park to stay in a special room with just her and her husband to recuperate from the scars all over her body. After the husband tried to abuse Park, she asked to move back into the room with all the other children.
Eventually, the female owner got Park out of the orphanage by sending her to work and live at a restaurant. But during her three months at the restaurant, Park said she was treated like a slave.
“The husband of the owner of the restaurant was disabled. After long hours of work at the restaurant, I would go back to the house and take care of the husband,” she recounted. “After three months, I got ill because of the hard work in the restaurant.”
She was then forced to move back to the orphanage. She stayed there for about another year before she finally escaped at age 19.
“I decided to escape from the orphanage and live my own life,” she said.
Living her own life
Park said she immediately went back to her grandmother’s house but was scolded for fleeing from the orphanage. So Park asked one of her grandmother’s neighbors if she could stay at their house, which she was allowed to do.
Eventually, the orphanage released her younger brother at the age of 16 because he was on the verge of death from starvation. Park said they released her brother so that he wouldn’t die in the orphanage. The orphanage, she said, was more worried about keeping its reputation intact than helping her brother.
“He came back to my grandmother's house and stayed there to recover. My grandfather decided to let both of us go because he couldn’t take care of us anymore,” she said. “We started wandering around in the street. In order to support my younger brother, I started my business in the market.”
Park said she was inspired to go into the market because her sister who was adopted did. Eventually, Park rented a room in a small house that she and her brother could stay in.
Park also borrowed money on high interest in order to start her business and pay for her brother’s expensive medication. She was eventually beaten because she was not able to pay back the lender.
Trafficked to China
After being beaten, Park decided to flee to China. But without money to flee, she decided that the best route was to get trafficked to China.
“I stayed there about a year-and-a-half in China and I married a Chinese man and gave birth to a son,” she explained, adding that her child was “stateless” because he couldn’t be registered to a government.
In China, Park reunited with her two sisters and as a family they fled to South Korea.
When they arrived in South Korea, Park said the sisters discovered that their mother, who had been trafficked to China when they were children, had also resettled in China.
“All four members in my family reunited and having a great life in South Korea now,” she said.
What’s happening now?
Although Park’s horrifying past is behind her, she recognizes that there are still helpless children in the same shoes that she was in.
“I am a mother with two children now. I have my own family,” she said. “Whenever I see orphans, I feel the same pain that they might be going through. I really urge that the international community will get together to solve this North Korean human rights issue.”
Kim Yong-Hwa, a former military officer who escaped North Korea in 1988 and founded the North Korean Refugees Human Rights Association, told the audience that the Kim regime has put up “propaganda-type” orphanages that foreign delegations are sent to in order to get the idea that orphans in North Korea are well cared for.
“These are orphanages set up to show the outside world,” Kim said. “This is for Kim Jong-Un, he wants to promote that he loves children, which is show and nonsense. This show and a lot of people are believing in the nonsense that he has set up for the outside world.”
At the private orphanage that Park was at, she explained that it received humanitarian support from humanitarian associations from other countries because it was famous for being run by so-called heroes.
“As soon as officials from the humanitarian associations left, two of the North Korean officials arrived and took half of the aid we got from them,” she explained. “After that, the family of the founders took most of the leftovers which left us almost nothing. Children in the orphanage were starving.”
After listening to Park’s experience, Kim vouched by saying that orphanages in North Korea are “like a slavery facility.”
“When you hear the word orphanage, you think of a place where kids can be safe and be adopted, that is not what orphanages are like in North Korea,” Schulte added.
In addition to the orphans in North Korea, Kim said there are as many as 40,000 North Korea orphans who have crossed the border into China.
“Recently, we have seen even the boys are being sold and trafficked. They are being sold to coal mines as workers or as hard laborers in mountains and woods. Even if they die, there is no compensation. There is nothing. Even if the employees don’t get money, there is nothing to complain about with the Chinese government [which repatriates defectors back to North Korea]. There is really no way to improve the circumstances for them. As they have lived as slaves in North Korea, even in [China], they are also living as de-facto slaves.”