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INTERVIEW/5-time North Korean defector slams China's deportation scheme

06/10/2024 12:15 PM
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Five-time North Korean defector Choi Min Kyong recounts her experiences in an interview in Seoul. CNA photo June 4
Five-time North Korean defector Choi Min Kyong recounts her experiences in an interview in Seoul. CNA photo June 4

Seoul, June 10 (CNA) Sexual abuse, violent beatings, babies stomped to death, corpses piled high in warehouses, pregnant women kicked in the stomach until they miscarry: these are some of the everyday atrocities seen in North Korea's "re-education camps," according to a five-time North Korean defector.

Part of the blame for those horrific actions in the so-called re-education camps lies at the feet of the Chinese authorities who force the repatriation of North Korean defectors, camp survivor Choi Min Kyong told CNA in a recent interview.

"True Hell"

It is impossible for the average person to imagine the conditions inside a "kyo-hwa-so" (re-education camp), Choi said. "It was true hell."

Choi was deported for the fourth time in 2008, amid a large crackdown on defectors conducted just before the Beijing Olympics. She was subsequently sent to the No.12 Kyo-hwa-so in Hoeryong.

After being frisked, women were demanded to strip for "checkups." If they were discovered to be pregnant, they would be kicked in the abdomen until the baby was killed and miscarried, Choi recalled, struggling to suppress her emotions.

"If a child fussed, they would be stomped to death as their mother watched," she said.

Violent beatings, forced labor, and sexual abuse were also rampant.

Once, she lost consciousness after collapsing from forced labor and abuse. Left for dead in a warehouse used to store corpses, she miraculously survived.

Choi was finally released in 2010 when an amnesty was granted for kyo-hwa-so prisoners. By then, she weighed only 27 kg, less than half of her weight of 57 kilograms when she was sent to the camp.

Of the 34 people from the same village as her, only six survived.

Determined to leave

Unlike most defectors, Choi is from a privileged family, with parents who are loyal to the "Supreme Leader."

However, for her, the bubble burst during the "Arduous March," a severe famine that struck North Korea in the 1990s.

"Supply rations weren't distributed for three years, and there were emaciated corpses everywhere on the streets," she recalled.

Both of her parents caught the rampant paratyphoid fever that further worsened the situation and "nearly broke down the system."

Choi's father did not survive, and seeing her loyal father die in such dreadful conditions proved to be the last straw.

The great escape?

In 1997, Choi defected for the first time with her mother, taking refuge with her uncle in Yanbian, a Korean autonomous prefecture bordering China and North Korea.

North Korea did not actively seek the return of defectors at first. She married a local ethnic Korean and had a daughter, whom she could openly register with Chinese authorities at the time.

However, a surge of North Koreans defecting between 1998 and 1999 prompted Pyongyang to request Beijing deport them. Large rewards were on offer to encourage people to snitch.

To Choi's fury, she was reported in 2000 by her mother-in-law's nephew, who had attended her marriage banquet.

Initially, North Korea sent the defectors back to their original residences. Choi defected again that same year.

She was repeatedly reported and subsequently deported until she was sent for "re-education" in 2008, during which she says she was subject to horrific abuse.

Choi finally defected to China one last time in 2012. She could not reunite with her daughter for fear of forced repatriation, so drifted from place to place, doing odd jobs to survive.

She also carried rat poison with her in case she was caught yet again, determined to end her own life instead of dying in detention.

She decided to risk it all and travel to South Korea that year, out of a desire to record the details of the torture and abuse she experienced that continue to be denied by North Korea and China.

China's role

Since arriving in South Korea, Choi has been busy raising awareness of human rights issues in North Korea and the impact of China's forced repatriation.

The Rights for Female North Koreans and the People for Successful COrean REunification, both non-profit organizations working to promote human rights in North Korea, published a joint report in July 2023 documenting the situations faced by North Koreans, particularly women, in China.

According to the report, 90 percent of female defectors in China end up as victims of human trafficking, and 78.7 percent gave birth in the country, with each woman having 1.37 children on average.

However, women in these positions are unable to get legal status in China and so cannot access healthcare, education, and social services.

Moreover, North Korea sees their women having children with Chinese husbands as betrayers of the state, the report said.

Pregnant women were often forced to abort and women watched their newborn infants being drowned by North Korean authorities, the report stated, citing three reports of firsthand experiences of the atrocity and others who have heard of the practice.

China's forcible repatriation of pregnant women to North Korea makes it "complicit in these gross human rights violations," because they knew about these policies, the report said.

Choi said North Korea was purposely making it more challenging for people to escape by persuading China to forcibly deport people back and cranking up the severity of punishments meted out to defectors.

In addition to the re-education camps that detain general defectors, those who have been to South Korea or believe in Christianity are labeled as political criminals and become subjects of human experiments, she alleged.

If political criminals were sentenced to death, their families would be forced to insult and throw rocks at them, she added.

Speaking as president of the North Korea Imprisonment Victims' Family Association, Choi said: "We risked our lives trying to get out for survival, and they [North Korea and China] trample over us just to maintain their dictatorship."

The civil society group consists of survivors from North Korea's detention facilities and their families, many of whom are still unable to work because of the long-lasting physical and mental impact of what they have been through, Choi said.

She criticized China for befriending North Korea for its inexpensive underground mineral resources. Despite being a signatory of the United Nations (U.N.) Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, China has not ceased deporting defectors and even abused them with tasers, she said.

China is not deserving of its position as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, she contended, expressing hope that the international organization would pressure China to address human rights issues in North Korea.

If China fails to respond, she suggested that the U.N. should consider revoking China's membership on the council

China keeps saying there is no evidence of abuse, Choi said indignantly, "Aren't we evidence enough? Our bodies are evidence."

"These [facts] need to be recorded in history," Choi said.

(By Liao Yu-yang and Wu Kuan-hsien)


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