The three North Korean women will not have their faces photographed. They will not disclose their names.
But certain things they will reveal. How they ground tree bark and cooked it into a thin gruel for food. How they were sold to brokers to work as maids or “unofficial wives” in China. How starving neighbours — children as well as adults — were executed for stealing even a morsel of meat.
“Our lives meant nothing,” one of them says. “We were like flies.”
The fear that propelled the women to flee the brutality of their homeland clings to them as refugees in Toronto, terrified their freedom in Canada will mean death to family and friends in North Korea, which calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
That may explain why some, like 13-year-old Sol Han, reported missing from a local shelter this week, melt away into the broader GTA population. Maybe never to be heard from again.
Even in the safety of a parliamentary hearing room in Ottawa, a former political prisoner worried her testimony would further imperil her family in North Korea.
“I have siblings who are imprisoned there,” said Hye Sook Kim in a witness statement that cast an Orwellian pall on a foreign affairs subcommittee last year. “Because of that, I cannot reveal my full identity to the public.”
The woman, who’d been imprisoned for 28 years in No. 18 Labour Camp, wore a baseball cap and sunglasses, and insisted the room be cleared of cameras.
Coming to Canada means an uncertain freedom for the mistrustful and secretive North Korean community, which depends on immigration authorities believing their stories.
Hyeok Sin Park, who allowed his name to be used but declined to be photographed, hoped to make his home in Toronto after a brazen, 28-hour escape in a rowboat from North Korea to South Korea in 2008.
It is not to be. After 18 months trying to prove his refugee claim in Canada, the 46-year-old defector is scheduled to be deported on Sunday to South Korea. He, his North Korean wife and their Canadian-born infant daughter were refused asylum because the couple had been given safe haven — and passports — in South Korea. In Canada, that South Korean acceptance negates a refugee claim.
“I’m bitter,” Park, a former soldier, says through a translator. He decided to leave Seoul, where he says he actively demonstrated against the north, because he “basically got tired of hiding” to protect his safety after every anti-North Korean rally.
“I wanted to stay here and live as a Canadian and resume protesting against the North Korean government, the inhuman treatment.”
As multicultural as Toronto is, very little is known about the North Koreans who started arriving here around 2006.
It’s unclear how many are in Toronto. Estimates from human rights organizations and church volunteers who work closely with North Koreans vary from 400 to as many as 900. The GTA’s South Korean community, upwards of 55,000, is attractive to fleeing North Koreans who seek a degree of comfort abroad in a shared language and some cultural similarities.
Canada had 385 refugee claims from North Koreans last year, up from just 26 in 2006, according to Immigration and Refugee Board figures.
In 2011, 117 claims from North Korean defectors were accepted, 12 were rejected and 41 were either abandoned or withdrawn. Some of these cases had been carried over from previous years.
There has been controversy recently about the veracity of refugee claimants’ stories of abuse and even their birthplace. The suspicion is some are actually South Koreans posing as persecuted North Koreans.
Park’s account of rowing his way to freedom — as other North Koreans did that same year, some of their escapes reported internationally — could not be independently verified by theStar.
Park says he’d taken a job as a crab fisherman for two months to study currents and conditions to plan his escape.
He left his first wife and two children behind in North Korea, not telling them he was fleeing in case they were executed for not turning him in. He says he tried to retrieve his family through brokers but it was too difficult.
So he eventually decided to start a “new life” in the south, he says, where he met his second wife.
Chris Kim, director of the Korean Canadian Cultural Association, has befriended Park and his family. Kim says that, like most North Koreans, Park’s distinct accent and phraseology is a dead giveaway to his birthplace. So is Park’s detailed knowledge of daily life within a cruel regime where he served in the military for 10 years.
“You could only pretend for so long that you were North Korean,” contends Kim, a South Korean native who immigrated to Canadian in 1975. The 52-year-old Kim, who owns the Dae Bak restaurant in Thornhill, acts as Park’s translator.
Kim has personal experience with some of the refugees arriving here. He speaks of a 15-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl who flew separately to Toronto recently. Kim picked them up at the airport. He worries that he cannot reach either by phone. He sighs. He’s learned to be patient with the newcomers, who often find life in Canada overwhelming.
“They need basic education, and that means a broad range, like social skills,” he explains, noting many are illiterate and cannot perform simple tasks such as using a bank or searching for housing. It’s not just the young, but older arrivals are confounded, too.
North Koreans are used to the state taking care of almost all of their needs, a way of life for nearly 60 years after the Korean War.
The Korean Peninsula was split into a pair of nations in 1953, when the warring factions signed a ceasefire and the countries divided along a demilitarized zone at the 38th parallel. They’ve been opposites ever since: totalitarian oppression in the north, democracy in the south.
Political tensions are white hot these days, with leaders in each country ramping up rhetoric fueled by the north’s military threats and the south’s defiant response.
The late writer Christopher Hitchens described North Korean prison camps — where some 200,000 endure lives of misery and hard labour — as “the most ghastly system of inhumanity currently operating on the planet.”
“Every single day I felt that I really wanted to just die,” Hye Sook Kim, told the foreign affairs committee. She was in prison for 20 years before she understood why she was there — her grandfather had disappeared during the Korean War and authorities believed he had gone to South Korea. Generations were punished for this presumed act of disloyalty.
Even letting dust accumulate on a portrait of the late Korean president Kim Il Sung was an act of disloyalty that could taint a whole family, says Randall Baran-Chong, executive director of the Toronto-based human rights organizations HanVoice.
Donald Rickerd has visited North Korea three times in the past 12 years and hosted six North Korean businessmen at a conference in Toronto.
“They have been inculcated with a hatred of and a fear of foreigners,” says Rickerd, an Asian Institute lecturer at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. “(After) years of this night-and-day indoctrination, it’s very difficult to cast off.
“North Korea, partly because of its geography but also because of its extraordinarily rigid orthodoxy, is almost completely closed.”
Chris Kim says North Koreans he’s gotten to know in the GTA often don’t trust fellow defectors. They fear that anti-North Korean sentiments will be circulated back to the homeland where, again, families left behind will be punished.
“There’s always tension there, even among them,” Kim says.
“Just because you’re from North Korea, (you don’t) open up. And for them to open up to us? It’s a long stretch.”
Canada established diplomatic relations with North Korea in 2001; David Chatterson, the Seoul-based ambassador to South Korea, is also “accredited” to North Korea. He makes only periodic trips to the north capital of Pyongyang, as Canada has imposed increasing restrictions on the relationship over the north’s testing of nuclear weapons.
Despite these tensions, Canadians can visit North Korea. Visas are required, and an approved company, such as Koryo Tours, which has a Toronto office, takes Canadian visitors on guided tours.
The three women who speak to the Star in the darkened sanctuary of the Korean Peace Presbyterian Church on Islington Ave. are diminutive. Stunting, the result of decades of malnutrition, is common among North Koreans, who are one to three inches shorter on average than South Koreans. The three, all refugee claimants, say fear of starvation drove them to flee to China, where they’d heard at least there was enough rice to feed everybody.
“I lived in a village near a coal mine,” says a 46-year old mother of two teenage boys, speaking through a translator. “Many people in the village ate grass — what pigs and cows would eat.” If not properly washed, it caused their faces to swell. Her husband starved to death, she says.
Brokers led them to China, the women say. On arrival, the brokers exacted payment for their services. Women are often sold to Chinese men. The three weren’t specific about their tasks — generally they said women work as maids, and some were unofficial wives to elderly men. One said a friend was sold to a man with two sons. “She was shared by three men.”
Did they ever grow fond of the men they were forced to live with? “No!” they say emphatically. “This must be exposed so the world can know what women are being forced to do to survive,” says a 32-year-old mother of two girls.
The youngest of the group is more solemn than the others. She is facing a deportation hearing at the end of May.
Unlike the other women, her journey took her beyond China and through Vietnam, Cambodia and South Korea. North Koreans are eligible, though not automatically entitled to, South Korean citizenship. Canada’s policy is to return refugee claimants to the country of first asylum.
But North Koreans can find it difficult adapting to life in South Korea, where they are viewed as outsiders and often fear the North Korean spies known to operate there. They often face discrimination in employment. “They have no experience in a capitalist society and often fall victim to fraud schemes,” says immigration lawyer Catherine Bruce.
Faraway Canada seems a safe haven. “I want to raise my children here,” says the mother whose deportation hearing is coming up. “I like it that this country respects individuals. I want Canada to be my village, my permanent home.”
And she has found kindness here. “My English teacher is a gentleman,” she adds (all three are studying English during the day).
The other two women have the same desire to remain.
“If they are North Korean refugees, why can’t Canada accept them?” the 46-year-old woman, a homemaker, asks. Furthermore, Canada should pressure China to stop returning refugees to North Korea, as is the current practice.
Chris Kim says the Canadian government should be doing more to help the refugees beyond delivering “a cheque once a month.” (Some refugee claimants are eligible for social assistance.) He says there is no practical support provided to the North Koreans, other than aid coming from human rights organizations, shelters and volunteers from Korean Christian churches.
One of those is Rev. Joo Sung Cha of the Korean Peace Presbyterian Church, where some 120 North Koreans attend his services. He offers more than spiritual guidance.
Kim says the North Koreans’ deep reserve and the mental trauma inflicted by “all that suppressed, hostile psychology they were born with and grew up with” have to be addressed in resettlement and are as critical as food, shelter and compassion.
“We need more attention on this, we need people to volunteer to guide these people to become better citizens, better human beings.”
Dredging up the past is unpleasant for the three North Korean women. “By digging into our memories, we will likely have trouble sleeping tonight,’ says the 40-year-old, who trained as a hairdresser. “But we hope by telling our story, we can shine some light on what is going on in North Korea.”
This woman, who came to Canada last year, animatedly relates her happiness. “Canada, I like,” she says. “There’s plenty to eat.” At the supermarket, she says, gesturing as if filling a grocery cart, “I want to buy everything!”
But mostly, they say, they want to world to know of the suffering of their home country. “We have to life live to the fullest,” says one, “for the people stuck in North Korea.”