‘From 1994 there was a famine and it became very difficult to eat," Naomi begins. "Even though we all had jobs we did not get paid . . . and we had to pay the government [a tax]."
Naomi's father had been born in China, and in 1998, with the family in debt and still struggling for food, she decided to see if she could find her relatives there and ask for help. She was befriended by a Chinese traveling salesman, who offered to guide her to her relatives' address. She left in the middle of the night. "I didn't want my parents to know I was leaving," she says. "I thought I would go for a few days and come back."
The merchant led her across the Tumen River to an apartment in a city on the Chinese side. It was then that she realized that the wares her salesman-friend sold were human--and female. She was given to a farmer, exchanged for the Korean "wife" he had purchased a month earlier, but who had turned out to be ill. "The day after I arrived, a neighbor reported me so five or six security people came to the house. I was so frightened and confused." The family paid a 3,000-yuan fine for the authorities to pretend she wasn't there.
Naomi spent the next three years in hard farm labor, suffering a back injury so severe that she couldn't walk for nearly a year. The family refused to get medical treatment for her because they were afraid someone would find out they were harboring an illegal refugee. After she did not become pregnant, the family eventually allowed her to leave to search for her relatives. When she finally found them, they ordered her to marry a man they picked out for her. Six months later she became pregnant.
"When I was eight months pregnant, I was captured by the Chinese," she says. "Somebody from my neighborhood reported me. . . . [The Chinese] pay people to report North Koreans." Her relatives paid the fine, but seven months later, when her son was still nursing, she was captured again. This time she was sent back to North Korea. Her son was wrenched from her.
She spent the next period of her life in a succession of prison camps. "I went into the Musan Security Center. There if you even spoke a word, they would make you hold out your hands and beat you with a large wooden stick."
She did farm work in another camp. It was harvest season. "You start at 4 o'clock in the morning and work until 10 or 11 at night." When the guards moved prisoners from camp to camp, "they would use shoelaces to tie our thumbs together to the thumbs of the person next to us so tightly that our thumbs would swell up."
After she was released, she sneaked back in to China. "I had to go because of my son," she says. It was too dangerous to stay in the same town, so she tied her son on her back and moved to another city with her husband. Fearing discovery--and with a husband who kept threatening to report her--she switched jobs constantly. She worked as a cook, as an Internet chat girl, and even danced nude for a Webcast.
In 2004, when listening to the Voice of America, she learned about Pastor Chun's underground railroad. She used the Internet to find his organization's fax number and sent him a plea for help. Her mother-in-law agreed to take care of her son, and Naomi decided to make a run for it.
Our interview over, [Naomi] relaxes and begins to talk about her first few days in America. "When we were in China," Naomi says, "we always had to hide. Now we don't feel that way anymore."
[Excerpts of an article by Melanie Kirkpatrick, The Wall Street Journal]