After fleeing North Korea to avoid extreme poverty and oppression, the young woman allowed a stranger to arrange a marriage for her with a rural Chinese farmer because she had nowhere to go.
An even more painful decision came later. She said severe abuse by her husband, including once being tied to a post, and the constant fear police would send her back to the North to face torture and prison convinced her that she needed to flee to South Korea.
She decided she had to make the risky journey alone, leaving behind the young daughter she had with her Chinese husband.
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“My heart has been torn apart,” the 35-year-old said of the daughter she left in the northeastern Chinese town of Longjing nearly 10 years ago, when the girl was 4. “I heard from my Chinese husband that my daughter cried herself to sleep and searched for me until she turned 8.”
She asked to be identified only by her surname, Kim, out of fear that publicity about her past would destroy her life in the South, where she has remarried and has two other children.
Kim has lost touch with her daughter and is afraid to return to China, but neither she nor other defectors in similar situations have given up.
Deep shame and guilt about not seeing their children and worry about social stigma in the South kept them silent for years, but some have begun pushing publicly for international help to get back their children.
Four defectors plan to travel to the United States next month to seek help from US and United Nations officials. It will not be easy.
Experts say Chinese authorities aren’t likely to accept the appeals because the women were illegal residents and their relationships were not legally recognized marriages.
Their efforts to reunite with their children could be viewed as individual family problems, rather than human-rights issues requiring international intervention.
“Is there any female defector who had registered their marital status in China?” said Yoon Yeo Sang, a co-founder of the Seoul-based nonprofit Database Center for North Korean Human Rights.
“For China, they were the ones who were supposed to be repatriated, and I wonder if China would accept their common-law marital status and take necessary legal steps.”