At the age of 16, Lee Tae-won, convicted of helping a young woman escape from North Korea and deemed an enemy of the state, was sentenced to five years in a "re-education” camp or gulag. His father, an accomplice to his son’s treasonous behavior, was given the same sentence. As traitors of the Supreme Leader, their lives became a nightmare. The conditions at the prison were inhumane and near the end of the five-year ordeal, Lee's father died.
Filled with guilt, sadness, and anger, Lee was released and returned home. He was now determined to defect from the country that had killed his father and ruined his life. A few years later, in 2015, he fled across the border into China. He had escaped from the world’s most authoritarian and brutal regime: the cult of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
Today he lives in South Korea, is employed by a car company in Seoul, and like millions of South Korean citizens, enjoys the benefits of living in an open, democratic society. But, as I discovered this weekend at a forum co-hosted by Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), his story doesn’t end there. As Lee told the crowd gathered at his presentation that afternoon, he received a call in November that changed his life.
Struggling to control his emotions, he explained how after nearly three years of hard work and sacrifice, he had saved enough money to hire a Chinese “agent”- someone who, for the right price, will help defectors flee from North Korea. After being released from prison years earlier, Lee had married, but realizing it would be nearly impossible to escape with a family, he had left his wife and young son behind, with the plan of getting them to Seoul as soon as he acquired the funds.
By October 2017, everything was in place. Sometime around the middle of that month, his family snuck out of their hometown and made their way to the Chinese border. When his wife called on 17 October from a safe house in Shenyang, China, Lee broke down and wept. It was the happiest day of his life.
A few weeks later, everything changed.
On 4 November while talking to his wife over the phone, something went horribly wrong. Chinese policemen raided the safe house. He doesn’t remember much more about the call, but it didn’t take long for him to realize his wife and son were now under Chinese custody and would almost certainly be sent back to North Korea. After hanging up, Lee collapsed. He spent the next two days crying, unable to make sense of what had happened.
But he rallied, and within a few days had contacted the South Korean and Chinese governments, news outlets in the West, the BBC, CNN, Radio Free Asia, and anyone who would listen. He pleaded for someone, some organization or government, to intervene and save his family. He knew what would happen if they were repatriated to the North.
After weeks of begging Chinese officials to release them, even making a direct plea to China’s leader, Xi Jinping, Lee was told his wife and four-year-old son had been forcibly returned to North Korea.
“I will live my entire life in guilt,” he told CNN in an interview. “It hurts so much and I feel so lonely.” Listening to Lee’s voice crack as he recounted his story on Saturday, I felt sick. As a husband and father, it’s hard to imagine what I’d do in the same situation.
“Because of my decision to bring them to South Korea,” he told CNN, “my wife will be sent to a political prison and my son will be sent to an orphanage, if he’s lucky enough to survive.” Lee's pain, sadness and anger were etched into his face when he spoke.
That afternoon we also heard Ji Hyeon-a, a woman who escaped from North Korea four times, only to have the Chinese repatriate her three of those times, tell her story of being a victim of a forced abortion and surviving in a North Korean prison. "Everyone was subject to harsh labor and meals were so lacking that we ate raw locust, discarded cabbage leaves and skinned frogs and rats," she told CNN last month after attending an event at the United Nations.
She now lives in Seoul and is an outspoken opponent of the North Korean regime and China's policy of repatriating North Korean escapees, or "illegal economic migrants," as the Chinese call them, to Kim Jong-un’s gulags.
We also listened to Hwang Cheol recount how his father, Hwang Won, was forcibly taken to North Korea, with 49 other South Koreans, when a North Korean agent hijacked a Korean Air Lines flight in 1969. Thirty-nine of the passengers and crew were eventually released, but 11 still remain in North Korea. Hwang Cheol’s father is one of them, and although Mr. Hwang is now in his late seventies, Kim Jong-un still refuses to free him.
The ongoing tragedy in North Korea, and China’s refusal to help stop it, is a blight on humanity. As China continues to repatriate innocent North Koreans fleeing from Kim Jong-un’s terror, the world watches. “The Chinese government's forcible repatriation of North Korean defectors is an act of murder, sending them to die,” Lee said at a rally held in front of the Chinese embassy in Seoul in November.
Top and featured photo: Lee Tae-Won protesting at the Chinese embassy in Seoul, November 2018. (Photo credit: The Kukmin Daily)