The recent deportation by Laos of nine orphaned North Korean defectors back to their country has thrown the spotlight on the plight of parentless North Korean children who escape a life of hardship to China as they seek opportunities to resettle in a third country.
They are often forced to live like animals in caves and beg for food after fleeing across the border to China where they stay hidden from the authorities and find themselves eking out a threadbare existence, according to a defector living in South Korea.
“The orphans are really poor children. In China, they must beg during the daytime and sleep in caves at night,” Kim Jin-myeong, who lost his parents at a young age and lived in China before making his way to South Korea, told RFA’s Korean Service.
Kim said he knew the group of orphans who were forcibly repatriated to North Korea from Laos last month, having met them in China before they fled across the border to the Southeast Asian nation.
Laos said it had handed the nine North Korean defectors directly to the North Korean Embassy without having their asylum claims assessed, putting them at risk of being severely punished.
China, North Korea’s strongest ally, does not recognize defectors as asylum seekers and has been known to return them to Pyongyang, where they can face harsh punishment and even execution.
Kim said that most North Korean orphans traveled across the border to China from the northernmost provinces of Yanggang and North Hamgyeong, seeking food. He said they often gather and live together.
“I made a home by myself,” he said. “There are many ‘nameless’ mountains in China, so I would make use of a cave in the ravine behind a town.”
“If I was found out by police, I moved and slept in another ‘house’.”
Also born in Yanggang province, Kim stopped attending school at a young age and fled to China after his father died of a heart attack and his mother succumbed to a terminal illness.
While begging in China, he met other homeless orphans from North Korea, and together they learned to survive on their own.
Kim said members of his group got the idea to make their home in remote valleys and mountain ranges based on stories they had heard growing up about North Korean founder Kim Il Sung repelling Japanese invasion forces.
“In a cave, up to 20 people can stay and live,” he said.
“Many of our cave dwellings likely still exist because they were camouflaged so well.”
Eventually, Kim said, he separated from his friends, making his way through the Chinese cities of Shenyang in Liaoning province and Beijing, before continuing on to Thailand and finally settling in South Korea.
Kim said that he was grateful to have found freedom, but lamented the fact that some of his friends had been caught during their defection bid in Laos.
“One of the young North Koreans is my good friend. I remember giving him food once after he was beaten while begging,” Kim said, adding that the two had met in China before becoming “scattered.”
“I feel sad that I can’t even mention his real name because of his safety,” he said, citing fears for his friend’s well-being in North Korea.
Laos said it had also deported two South Koreans caught together with the nine North Koreans, accusing the duo of human trafficking.
The 11 were detained by police in Oudomxay province bordering China, according to the Lao authorities.
The Red Cross of North Korea had also condemned the South Koreans, saying they were discovered in Laos while trying to kidnap the orphans.
Kim rejected claims that the South Koreans were human traffickers, saying the two were missionaries that had helped the orphans in China by providing them with food and shelter.
He also criticized the media for broadcasting the names and faces of the orphans, saying it was “harmful to the defectors,” though he acknowledged that doing so “could help to pressure the North Korean government from the outside.”
Close to 25,000 North Koreans have come to South Korea since the end of the Korean War. The vast majority of them had hidden in China and Southeast Asian countries including Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam before flying to Seoul.
Reported by Young Jung for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Goeun Yu. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.