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Repatriated Female North Korean Refugees Suffer From Torture and Sexual Violence

March 13, 2013

Below is a translation of an article that appeared in NK Vision magazine’s April 2012 issue, which featured a series of articles on the grassroots movement that quickly came to be known as “Save My Friend.” Translation courtesy of NKnet volunteer Anny Ma.

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A North Korean refugee speaks at a "Save My Friend" rally against the forced repatriation of North Korean refugees in China. The event was held in Seoul across the street from the Chinese embassy on February 24, 2012.
Rallying across the street from the Chinese Embassy in Hyoja-dong, Seoul, protesters at a press conference hosted by the Network to Save North Korean Refugees (탈북난민구출네트워크) urged the Chinese government to stop forcefully repatriating North Korean refugees. However, the issue of forcible repatriations sends a particularly cold chill down the spines of some of those at the rally – those North Korean refugees who have experienced forced repatriation themselves. North Korean refugees who attended the rally and candlelight vigil to protest China’s actions repeated the following statement: “Dying is better than being sent back to North Korea.”

Why would they say something like that? Asked about her feelings of being captured in China and returned to North Korea, 57-year-old North Korean refugee Lee Soon Ae responded by gazing blankly up at the air. Then she started to share her story.

“My son was sick and died because I had no money to buy medicine for him. So I made up my mind to go to China and make some money. I had left my daughter with my mother, and was determined to keep her from starving after I returned to North Korea. However, I was caught and sent back to North Korea after two months, and without the money I had earned in China. It is hard for me to express my feelings at that time,” Ms. Lee tearfully recalled.

Like other North Korean refugees in the same situation, Ms. Lee believed that her repatriation meant death. “Once we got caught, we were treated like animals. They did not give us enough food. Moreover, we were often exposed to beatings and sexual violence. It was the first time that I regretted being born female, and I always felt like I wanted to die,” she remembered.

“The minute I went into the jail, they pulled off my clothes and continually abused me while yelling profanity at me like, ‘This bitch fattened up because she managed to eat well in China’; ‘I’d be full if I boiled and ate one of your breasts’; ‘How was the sex with Chinese men?’; ‘If I had seen them having sex with dirty bitches like you I’d have smashed their heads in an instant.’”

Ms. Lee said that once North Korean refugees are sent back to their homeland, they are not treated like human beings but as animals. “They pulled off our clothes in front of everybody else, and yelled at us to open our legs. Some young soldiers stuck their hands inside our uteruses and moved them in a stirring motion. It hurt so much and the louder we shouted the deeper their hands went. But the most painful thing is that rather than being able to fight back, we could only endure the torture,” she recalled, constantly wiping away tears.

“That is why I decided to commit suicide, but you can’t do anything you want in a North Korea prison camp,” she continued. “The North Korean authorities make all prisoners keep a watchful eye on each other. They promise them that they can receive lighter punishment if discover mistakes made by other prisoners. As a result, it was literally impossible to commit suicide,” she recalled. Yet Ms. Kim did attest that many people who could not stand living in the prison camp attempted suicide by tying clothes around their necks or by using hair pins they hid in their hair.

“Filthy water was thrown on me when I asked for a sip of water”

North Korea authorities conduct their first round of investigations of North Korean refugees at the offices of the National Security Agency (보위부 – NSA). During the NSA’s interrogation process, people who are found to have attempted to enter South Korea or who went to church will receive severe punishment regardless of their circumstances. North Korean refugees suffer unimaginable insults and beatings during the process of investigation and interrogation conducted by the NSA. None of them are able to resist the treatment they endure.

Another 49-year-old North Korean refugee named Hwang Ok Nyeo recalled what she had been through. “After being sent to the Hyesan NSA for interrogation, I was so afraid that my mind went blank. I have never trembled like that in my life. The inspector scared me out of my wits when he threatened to beat me if I did not answer his questions properly,” she recalled.

Overtaken by fear inside the metal bars of her cell at the NSA building, Ms. Hwang was thirsty and innocently asked the guard for some water. The guard stared for a long while and then yelled, “Which bitch asked for the water?” As soon as Ms. Hwang answered “It was me,” the guard threw dirty water in a bucket left over from cleaning the floors through the metal bars of her cell.

Ms. Hwang concluded by saying that all she felt at the time was the powerlessness of someone who could not prevent herself from being in a freezing cold cell covered in filthy water.

“They interrogated us about whether we had been to church or met with South Koreans”

NSA officials conducted intensive interrogations into whether refugees had been to churches in China or if they had met South Korean people. “If I told the officers that I had no time to go to church because I had to make money and did not even know what a church is, the officer would say, ‘This bitch definitely has been to church because she already knows what a church is,’ and then he would beat me. It is hard to describe that pain,” Ms. Hwang recalled. However, the humiliation and pain that North Korean refugees suffer does not stop there. North Korea refugees testified uniformly that they were frequently beat and insulted, and they could not even raise a word of protest when being sexually assaulted.

Hwang Keum Ok, a 48-year-old refugee, was sexually assaulted in an NSA prison. “After I went into the interrogation room, (the officer) started to touch my body with his hands, claiming that he had to measure my height and the size of my chest, waist, hip, and thigh, just like a health check-up for military service. He put me in a corner for height measurement and looked at me for a while then started to feel my whole body. Then he opened his pants button and with fierce-looking eyes told me to touch his nasty thing,” she said, recalling memories she has since tried to repress.

“He blew cigarette smoke in my face and pushed me to finish as quickly as possible while he was still in a good mood. He even used uterus inspection as an excuse to sexually molest me,” she continued. “Unable to say a word or do anything is the humiliation that every repatriated North Korean refugee has experienced,” Hwang added.

However, this is not the end of the humiliation and abuse North Korean refugees suffer. As soon as the nightmarish process of interrogation is over, North Korean refugees are then sent to re-education camps (교화소) all across the country. Yeom Gwang Ok, a 46-year-old refugee, contends that life at these re-education camps are hard for people to imagine not only because of the forced hard labor they must endure. Their inability to choose whether to live or die makes life a living hell.

Eating the Corn Fed to Pigs

“After being interrogated at the NSA, I was forced to do labor training and so-called ‘Revolution Activity’ (혁명화) in re-education camp number 55 in Yeonggwang-gun (영광군), Hamhung province. All I saw was a group of malnourished people who were treated worse than animals and worked like slaves,” she said.

She vividly recalled that after seeing pigs eating better than humans at the camp she began wishing she had been born a pig. Given the opportunity, she surreptitiously ate corn that had been given to the pigs to eat. Due to such memories, when North Korean refugees hear the word “repatriation,” they complain about heart-tearing pain that sends their entire body shivering.

“The South Korean government, media, citizens and the whole world must work together to stop forced repatriations. Please help us. Please stop North Korean refugees from being forcibly repatriated.”

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