With some 53,000 refugees a year finding new homes in the United States, one group of six in the crowd hardly seems worth noticing. But when they are North Koreans bearing fresh accounts of abuses committed by their communist state and the horrors undergone to escape them, they quickly grab attention.
The six touched down on American soil May 5, the first time in more than 50 years the United States has taken North Koreans as refugees. Protection surrounding them and their useful escape route was tight: no names, and no identifying the Southeast Asian nation they came through. Disclosing those details could endanger the refugees' families remaining in North Korea.
Nonetheless, they have told other parts of their stories. The group's path to freedom began when some members contacted South Korean pastor Chun Ki Won in 2003. Rev. Chun is a well-known activist on the Underground Railroad, which smuggles North Korean refugees to safety, often first through hostile territory such as China and then Southeast Asia.
At least two of the women crossed the peril-fraught border with China in 1998 and 2003 and then found themselves sold into forced marriages with Chinese men. According to The Wall Street Journal, one endured severe beatings from her husband. The other suffered farm labor so excruciating she injured her back and could not walk for almost a year. China later repatriated her and as punishment for absconding, North Korea cycled her through its network of prison camps, thought to hold some 200,000 inmates. She later escaped back into China.
Such harrowing stories are typical, by activist accounts. Tim Peters, another ardent underground railroader, heads the Seoul-based nonprofit Helping Hands Korea. He estimates almost three-quarters of women refugees fall prey to traffickers in China. His group focuses on aiding North Koreans in worst crisis in China, which repatriates captured North Koreans despite their almost certain risk of punishment and even execution.
[Excerpt of an article by Priya Abraham, WORLD Magazine]