North Korean Mothers Fight to Be Reunited with Stateless Children Left Behind in China

By Christine Chung

Perhaps you’ve read William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice, or maybe you’ve seen Meryl Streep win the best actress Oscar for her role in the movie adaptation. The story is about a woman who chooses under extreme duress which of her two young children will be allowed to live. We like to think imposing these types of sadistic choices was part of a distant Nazi past. But the Tongil Moms were forced to make heart-wrenching decisions not that long ago.

These North Korean women chose to leave young children behind to make precarious journeys to escape the dangers of residing illegally in China and find asylum in South Korea, either because they couldn’t endure their forced marriages any longer or because every day they risked being captured by Chinese authorities and repatriated to North Korea where they were certain to face beatings, starvation and worse in prison camps. Because in North Korea it’s a crime to leave without permission, even if there’s no food to be found inside the country or you have to go to over the border to find goods to trade in the markets to survive. And asking for permission to leave is tantamount to a crime because it would reveal a lack of faith in the North Korean leadership.

Tongil Mom Delegation and HRNK at the Heritage Foundation on November 2, 2016.
From left to right: Lee Young-hee (Tongil Mom Member), Kim Jeong-ah (Tongil Mom Founder and Executive Director), Rosa Park (HRNK Director of Programs and Editor), and Hwang Hyun-jeong (Tongil Mom Member).

This week, three members of the Tongil Moms, an advocacy group of North Korean women who seek reunification with their children whom they left behind in China, participated at a forum on human trafficking in China at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. Three North Korean women (sometimes referred to as “defectors”) who now reside in South Korea are activists demanding their fundamental human rights to family life and privacy. Executive Director of Tongil Moms Kim Jeong-ah said, “Two [other mothers] have been included in this delegation, but the participants have changed multiple times because they could not face the trauma of having to retell their stories.” The two other members were Hwang Hyun-jeong and Lee Young-hee.

Around 30,000 North Koreans have resettled in South Korea, the vast majority of them women. Assessing how many of them were victims of human trafficking is difficult as is estimating the number of North Korean women who remain trafficked in China or languish in prisons back in North Korea after forced repatriation. Kim estimates 60 percent of North Korean women in South Korea were abused in China. She said, “Naturally, women only share their stories with friends they are very close with and trust. This is because women defectors feel shameful about their experiences. It is extremely difficult for me when I share what I have been through. I was sold for 19,000 Chinese yuan (about USD 2,800). Moreover, I have to confess the fact that I abandoned my child, whether it was against my will or not.”

Kim explains that the Chinese government's policy of forced repatriation of North Korean refugees leads to mothers having to abandon their children. Under international law, China is prohibited from returning North Korean refugees to North Korea where they face torture and other reprisals. Instead, China is obliged to offer them protection under several international treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention against Torture, as well as customary international law which prohibits forced repatriation (also called refoulement). But the Chinese government doesn’t comply with its international legal obligations and declares North Koreans who flee the country not to be genuine refugees but illegal immigrants coming to China for economic reasons.

“Because of the constant threat of being forcibly repatriated to North Korea, I was never able to sleep for more than one hour at a time; I would lay awake every night,” Kim said. “Mothers cannot stay in China and must abandon their children, thinking that they will go back to get them someday, but there is no way to influence what the children are taught. The [Chinese] fathers tell them: “Your mother’s abandoned you.’ They don’t think about the kind of pain that causes a child.”

The Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in October 2013 urged China to “cease the arrest and repatriation of citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [North Korea], especially children, and women who have children with Chinese men, and ensure that children of mothers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea have access to fundamental rights, including the right to identity and education.” The CRC made similar recommendations in previous years, as have many other UN committees and human rights bodies like the Working Group on discrimination against women in law and practice.

Kim said, “The last time I spoke with my daughter in 2013, she said, ‘Mom, you’ve left me haven’t you. You hate me don’t you?’ When a child says that, her mother will be devastated, don’t you think? Have you ever said that to your mother? I bet not. This is not the kind of thing that should be said between a mother and her child. Even so, the daughter I have not seen since she was five years old repeated this to me endlessly. It seemed like my world was collapsing around me.” The Tongil Moms make three demands: that children born to North Korean mothers and Chinese fathers be given proper identity documents that would entitle them to education and health care—some 20,000 to 30,000 such children are believed to be stateless, that mothers have access to their children and other parental rights, and that these children be given a choice to reunite with their mothers.

“If we continue to ignore these problems, it will continue to be a huge obstacle for these women to adjust to South Korean society. They will pretend as if nothing happened or hide what happened. They will look ‘normal’ during the day, but will then cry at home alone, sobbing because they miss their children in China. However, it is different when their suffering is shared with other people.” 

The Tongil Moms decided they needed to share their stories. “I felt that we needed to come together and tell the world about the situation of these children left behind in China…to raise awareness, generate interest and get your help to work on this situation together,” Lee Young-hee told students at an event at the University of Virginia (UVA).

“Obviously, the Chinese government is not going to stop its policy of repatriation overnight,” Kim told UVA student newspaper The Cavalier Daily. “But I believe if we approach the people with a [conscience], the people who believe in human rights in China and if we approach this using social media then we can definitely try to make a change regarding the situation.”

Kim said, “If I do not share my story, I will be in pain and cannot hold my head up in front of my child one day. I could say nothing if my child asked me that what kind of efforts I made in order to find her.”


The author is grateful to Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor, who conducted the interview with Kim Jeong-ah in Korean and provided translation. The author also wishes to thank HRNK’s Christopher Buchman, Soohyun Chang, and Amanda Won, who helped with the translation. HRNK thanks Henry Song (No Chain) and Bruce Klingner (Heritage Foundation) for facilitating the interview.

Christine Chung is a Senior Advisor to the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and the former Political Advisor to the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. As a human rights officer for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, she managed the Office's technical cooperation program with China, supported the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, and served desk functions for Northeast and Southeast Asia. Before joining the UN, Ms. Chung established and headed the China field office for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.

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