One night in autumn of 2003, Lee Mi-young, a North Korean defector living in China, kissed her 9-month-old son, Kang, on the forehead, looked at her son's Chinese father who had taken care of her for two years, and hugged him. Then she walked out and left her family behind.
"It was terrible," says Ms. Lee, who uses a pseudonym for fear of repercussions. "But I had to leave, so my son could have a future."
Lee's son, like many children born to North Korean mothers and Chinese fathers in the northeastern region of China, was in legal limbo. Although Chinese law grants citizenship to children of Chinese nationals, many fathers don't register their children because they fear the children's mothers could be arrested and repatriated to North Korea, or they can't afford the bribes required.
This leaves the children without access to education and other social services, and that's why Lee decided to leave. With her out of the picture, Kang could be registered as Chinese.
She took a five-hour bus ride to the Chinese city of Dandong, where she worked as a waitress to save money. "I was always scared and could never go out," says Lee, who knew that if caught, she would be sent back to North Korea.
After three years in Dandong, she saved enough to send 3,000 yuan to her Chinese "husband" to pay for her son's registration. In 2008, she moved to Seoul, South Korea.