In their short lives, the three young North Korean refugees recently released in Laos have been unluckier than most North Korean refugees and bad fortune has dogged every step.
Choi Hyok and his sister lost their parents in the 1990s, when more than 1m died of famine under Kim Jong-il’s dictatorship. They were reduced to begging in the streets of Hoeryong in one of the poorest parts of North Korea, on the border with China.
“I was always very hungry, cold, worked hard and was beaten all over my body when I was a beggar,” the boy recalled. “All our relatives were too poor to help us,” his sister said, “so we escaped to China in 2005.”
There they met Choi Hyang-mi, whose father had died in the 1990s and who fled to China across the Tumen river in December, 2003. She appears to suffer from a congenital heart complaint, made worse by malnutrition and stress.
The children came together in the care of a group of Christian missionaries near the city of Shenyang. After months of preparation, they boarded a train to Beijing, with just enough money to get by and two precious phone numbers for Korean Christians in the United States. They evaded document checks in the Chinese capital and caught another train for the long haul down to Kunming, in China’s southwest.
From there they went by bus and taxi to where China blends into Laos under a canopy of tropical jungle. They walked for 10 hours over seven hilltops to reach the first Lao settlement. Then they rode on rickety buses down trails to the Lao capital on the banks of the Mekong.
They were picked up within hours. Their bad luck then turned into terrible misfortune when the Lao authorities allowed three heavyweight “counsellors” from the North Korean embassy to visit them. It was, by the children’s accounts, a terrifying experience.
[Excerpt of an article by Michael Sheridan, The Sunday Times]