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Of the thousands of interactions I’ve had with North Korean refugees in China, I can’t get one out of my head. I met her during a visit two years ago to her small farming village where I stayed the night in a drab, one-room house. The roof was made of mud and the interior walls and ceiling were covered in newspaper.
I was there to help her and other North Korean refugees access resources and medical care as part of my work with the nonprofit Crossing Borders.
I was taking notes for the doctor when this woman approached our table. She was just 38, but she had a sad face with wrinkles around her eyes. She had no rights or protections. China routinely arrests refugees and sends them back to North Korea, where they are guaranteed time in the world’s most brutal prison camps.
As I took down her vital information, she told me her birth date. Shocked, I stopped typing and asked her to clarify. We had been born on the same day — on opposite sides of the Korean Demilitarized Zone.
I was born in Seoul, she in Chongjin — a North Korean mining town about 200 miles north. Though our births were separated by just moments and miles, the details of our lives couldn’t be more different. My family was able to emigrate to the United States when I was a baby, in search of a better life. I was well educated and blessed to be able to pursue my passions. I was granted time to mess up, to find my footing as an adult.
Meanwhile, she had spent years of her childhood trapped in a devastating famine that claimed the lives of up to 3 million innocent North Koreans. Her family starved to death. Many refugees have told me they ate bark and grass to survive at the instruction of their government. Some even turned to cannibalism.
Though it is a crime to leave their country, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have risked imprisonment to find their next meal. To the south is the most heavily militarized border in the world, so they escape to China.
This refugee made her journey in 2001 by walking across the frozen Tumen River, her country’s porous Northern border. I have seen footprints on the Tumen in winter, vestiges of hope left by people who evaded the North Korean border guards, whose primary purpose isn’t to keep people out — but to keep people in.
After she crossed the border, traffickers captured her and sold her as a forced bride to a poor farmer, with whom she lives today. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates that there will be 30 million to 40 million more men than women below age 20 in China by the year 2020. Caused by the one-child policy, China’s gender disparity has created a market for North Korean women.
China regularly arrests and deports aid workers like me. I’ve been surrounded by Chinese soldiers wielding AK-47s. I’ve fled the country out of fear for my safety. I’ve organized logistics to smuggle people out of the country.
Earlier this year, my team and I decided that I would stop going to China, so that I can publicly promote the work that we do. This means that I will never be able to go back without fear of arrest. The publication of this essay will ensure that.
But I was able to walk away from China on my own terms, refugees like the one I met two years ago aren’t. While Americans were spared this week from North Korea’s threats of nuclear war, she likely will never escape the risk of death at the hands of that regime.
This is the definition of injustice: 200 miles. That’s all it took for us to live two completely different lives.
She had been taught her whole life to hate America. In school, North Korean children are taught that Americans are baby-eating monsters. But as I travel the world to raise funds for Crossing Borders, I’ve come to appreciate the generosity of the American people. Though we have donors throughout the world, there is something unique and beautiful about the American ethos that compels us to give.
When this woman and I discovered that we were born on the same day, we stood up from the table that separated us, grabbed each other’s forearms and looked each other in the eyes.
“Thank you, thank you,” she said to me, uttering some of the only English words she knew.
I don’t think she meant to thank me. I hadn’t done anything for her at that point. I think what she was expressing was how surprised she was. It was like finding an old classmate.
“Thank you, thank you,” she repeated.
I didn’t know how to express the heartbreak that I was feeling at the moment. I’m still figuring out how to express it today.
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