Orphaned, Homeless: Surviving The Streets of North Korea

By: From CNN.com
By: From CNN.com

SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- The first time Yoon Hee was abandoned, she was an infant.

She was born in a village near North Korea's sacred Mount Baekdu, where the country's lore claims its founder, Kim Il Sung, led the fight for independence and his oldest son, Kim Jong Il, was born.

But the similarities between Yoon Hee and her homeland's rulers end there.

Six months after her birth, her parents divorced and left Yoon Hee in the care of a friend.

The second time she was abandoned, Yoon Hee was 8 and had gone back to live with her mother. One day, her mother told her she had somewhere to go. "She never came back," Yoon Hee said.

Yoon Hee had no choice but to live alone in North Korea. So she did what many abandoned North Korean children do -- living on the streets, nearly freezing to death in the winters, begging for mercy, plucking grass for food and crying so hard at night only the pain in her face could stifle her tears.

Yoon Hee stayed in the same neighborhood as her mother in the city of Hyesan, hoping they could live together again.

"I sometimes ran into her on the streets," Yoon Hee said, "but I couldn't ever get a warm feeling from her."

One time when they met, Yoon Hee said, "she told me she was already having a hard time living by herself, so she couldn't live with me."

But Yoon Hee was undeterred.

Amid tensions in the Korean peninsula, much of the focus has fallen on deciphering the next moves of Pyongyang's new leader, Kim Jong Un.

But all this belies a humanitarian crisis in North Korea, a country that boasts of its military strength and nuclear capabilities and yet has no place for homeless orphans.

"There are many children like me who die," said Hyuk Kim, who fled North Korea in 2011, nearly a decade after becoming an orphan.

In the punishing winters, Hyuk and other orphans would break into sheds containing electric transformers near factories and markets to find a warm place to sleep.

"Many children accidentally end up touching the transformers while sleeping and die," said Hyuk, who asked that his real name not be used for the safety of family members still in North Korea.

As Hyuk dozed off each night curled next to a transformer, he would try to stay as still as possible -- willing himself not to move in his sleep.

"I thought I would live forever this way," he said.

The plight of orphans who've escaped North Korea caught the attention of U.S. humanitarian groups, who've lobbied for years to pave the way for their adoption by Americans and others.

In January, President Obama signed the North Korean Child Welfare Act of 2012, which instructs the U.S. State Department to "advocate for the best interests of these children" -- including helping to reunite families and facilitate adoptions.

The law is aimed primarily at those orphans hiding in China and other countries. Those who make it to South Korea are provided an education, a path to citizenship and even a chance at adoption.

Gwak Jong-Moon knows the pain orphans suffer. He's the principal of Hangyeore Middle-High School, a South Korean transitional facility open only to North Korean children and teenagers.

About 50 North Koreans under the age of 24 enter South Korea every year without family, according to the South's government. These children only make up about 2% of all North Korean defectors who enter the South.

Some North Korean orphans who survive the treacherous escape from their homeland by way of China end up in South Korean boarding schools, dormitories or group homes.

Adoption in South Korea is not a common practice, but Gwak said "adopting is natural, and worthy."

"There are some South Koreans who adopt our school's children, although not many," he said. "Children here with South Korean adults who don't officially adopt, but act like their parents make unbelievable progress."

We recently traveled to Seoul to meet some of these orphans and the people caring for them. Originally we wanted to learn more about their lives in South Korea -- what it's like trying to integrate into an alien society after living in one of the most isolated countries in the world.

We visited Gwak's school earlier this year -- on a majestic campus more fitting for a temple, tucked away in snow-crusted hills about an hour from Seoul. We also visited the Seoul home of a pastor who is raising five North Korean orphans.

In both places, we met children and teenagers scarred by their experiences. Although we could not independently confirm the details of their individual histories, advocates who work with them say they have heard consistently similar testimonies.

We also heard stories of children struggling with South Korean culture, targeted by bullies, befuddled by K-pop and puzzled by mundane tasks like managing money and taking public transportation.

But we also got a glimpse into the underbelly of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea -- from the perspective of those who occupied one of the lowest rungs of society, far removed from the idyllic vision portrayed in the nation's propaganda.

Not long after running into her mother in the streets, Yoon Hee fell ill. Alone and 10 years old, she lay in the snow as the icy winter descended in North Korea.

Eventually, Yoon Hee caught what she suspects was typhoid, leaving her in a hell of fire and ice. Although she lay in the snow about two weeks, no one offered help or food.

She tried to muster her energy to sit and wiggle her fingers and toes, but her hands and feet barely budged -- they were frozen in place. She could no longer move.

Surely, this was it, Yoon Hee thought. She prepared herself. "I am going to die."

Yoon Hee would become yet another corpse rotting in the street -- she had seen the frozen corpses on the roadside because no one bothered to bury bodies of strangers. A voice interrupted her feverish daze.

A villager had appeared. Yoon Hee recognized her as a woman who was struggling to feed her own children. The villager thrust money into Yoon Hee's hand. Her voice was firm: "You have to survive."

In North Korea, homeless children like Yoon Hee are called "kotjebes," or flowering swallows. Like the bird, these children are free to roam, unconstrained by the country's societal norms.

Without parents, family or schooling, they don't have as much exposure to the state propaganda that is engrained from childhood, according to advocates. When they escape to neighboring China, it is not so much for political reasons, but to find food.

A U.N. assessment in March found that of the country's estimated 28 million people, 16 million are chronically deprived of food.

Peter Jung is among those working on behalf of North Korea's orphans. Based in Seoul, he leads Justice for North Korea, which describes itself as a "volunteer, non-partisan, grassroots organization" that opposes human rights violations in North Korea.

Jung first met North Korean orphans in 1998 in northern China, where he had gone to learn Mandarin.

Jung was stunned to see the stunted size and condition of North Korean orphans. "It was too shocking to believe," Jung said. "There were children who had skin diseases and with bloated stomachs, collapsing in the streets because of malnutrition."

Korean children have been found to be about 3 to 4 centimeters shorter than their South Korean counterparts, according to a 2009 study published in the journal Economics and Human Biology.
Nearly 28% of North Korean children suffer from stunting, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Fifteen years after meeting the first of these street orphans, Jung is still helping defectors escape, working from a small, cluttered basement office in the South Korean capital.

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