On March 8th, the George Washington University student group Truth and Human Rights in North Korea (THiNK) hosted an event in honor of International Women’s Day at the Marvin Center on campus. Two North Korean refugees, May and Yoon (they requested their full names remain private due to safety concerns) shared their stories about the horrifying human rights violations they suffered under North Korea’s communist regime and their eventual escapes.
Before I heard them speak, I was able to talk with both women in Korean, which I can fluently speak, read, and write thanks to my parents. The three of us were able to have a broader conversation about their experiences in North Korea and beyond. One could never have guessed the horrors that they faced because they remained positive and confident. I never expected to leave encouraged by their testimonies, but I did.
Yoon was the first to tell her story. She was accepted to one of the top colleges in North Korea but was not able to attend because her mother could not afford the tuition. During seasons of famine, Yoon’s family and others would resort to eating grass. Sometimes there was not even enough grass to eat. Yoon told us of how she longed to eat just one bowl of rice, but her best option was a small portion of soup with barley and little nutritional value.
Yoon explained that she was eventually able to escape to South Korea with the help of her aunt and uncle, although it was a long and hard process.
Next, May shared her similar experiences of extreme poverty and starvation. She told the audience that there was a man in her neighborhood who was so hungry he hallucinated that his eight-year-old daughter was a pig and proceeded to eat her.
Hunger is among the least of the hardships North Korean women face, according to May. During the lecture, I learned that most North Korean women suffer some form of rape, forced labor, human trafficking, domestic abuse, or violence.
Domestic abuse is common among North Korean families, May said. Her husband would beat her severely every time he drank. A turning point came after May’s daughter died in a train accident.
Because her husband refused to work, May was forced to earn a living to try and support the family. She would typically bring her daughter with her to work. Then one day May was not able to take her daughter along. So May asked her husband to take care of the child, but he was negligent. May’s daughter left the house without her husband knowing and went with some older children to play on the train tracks.
Sadly while her daughter was playing, a train came by and fatally struck her. On top of this tragedy, May’s abusive husband severely burnt their son. She finally decided to escape the abuse by going back to her parents’ house.
Not only did May decide to escape her abusive husband, she decided to leave North Korea for a time to earn money to pay for her son’s medical bills. North Koreans often try to escape China to make their way into South Korea eventually.
Once in China, she was caught and detained by the Chinese police. Police officers physically and mentally abused her while arrested.
Other North Korean women trying to escape via China were sexually assaulted by Chinese men, according to May. The additional disturbing news was of prevalent sex trafficking of many North Korean women refugees.
Somehow May was able to escape China and return to her parents and son in North Korea. But due to another season of famine and no work, May realized that she could not live under North Korea’s oppressive regime. She decided to escape North Korea once more. Unfortunately another misfortune came her way.
May explained that North Korean women were sold into forced marriages by men acting as brokers. May was not an exception. Sadly, a broker raped May. After she became pregnant, he forced her into marriage with him. She bore him a daughter, but the explosive verbal harassment from her mother-in-law and sister-in-law was unbearable. Eventually, they even took away her daughter from her. May decided she had to get out of North Korea. Through events she did not share in detail, May eventually escaped to the United States.
May has lost virtually everything. Her children. Her home. However, she believes that the reason for her escape is due to the grace of God. May shared how in her most desperate times she cried out to God, even though she had never heard of Jesus due to North Korea’s oppressive regime. Thank God, after escaping North Korea May learned about Jesus and gave her life to Him.
These two North Korean women faced many hardships, but May’s testimony of faith especially left me encouraged. Her testimony proved once again that our God is real and that He is alive.