2 young defectors describe horrors of life in North Korea

A North Korean flag flutters in the village of Gijungdong on Nov 12, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A North Korean flag flutters in the village of Gijungdong on Nov 12, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - When Ms Park Yeon Mi was just nine, she and her North Korean village were forced to watch in horror as a friend's mother was publicly executed for the crime of watching illegal DVDs, she says.

As a boy, Mr Joseph Kim could only watch helplessly, he says, as he saw his father "wither and die" in the isolated country's devastating famine in the 1990s, which led to the tragic disintegration of his once "loving" family.

The two young defectors gave a rare and heartbreaking insight into what they described as lives of deprivation, hunger and abuse in North Korea during an event at the State Department to mark Human Rights Day.

Ms Park was born in Hyesan, the daughter of a government official, whose job provided the family with relative stability and protection.

They also lived close to China, providing greater exposure to the outside world than many others in the isolated hermit state run by the dynastic communist family of its founder Kim Il Sung.

As a young girl, Ms Park thrived on illicit movies from all over the world - Russian, Chinese, even Hollywood blockbusters such as Titanic, which her resourceful mother would swop with friends.

It gave her a glimpse into another world. But also revealed the precariousness of her own life when the "kind" mother of a friend was caught with a banned DVD and publicly put to death.

Then came the famine and to survive her father set up a small illegal trading business smuggling goods into China, says Ms Park, who faces a growing number of doubters - including other defectors in South Korea - who say her story lacks credibility.

"I think the market is very important because once you start trading for yourself, you start thinking for yourself. And that's a big threat to a totalitarian government," Ms Park, 21, told an audience of diplomats in Washington.

"In 2004 my whole world came crashing down. My father, my hero, got arrested for his illegal trading business."

He was sent to a hard labour camp, and the family was marked. "We had no real future any more."

So, according to Ms Park, she and her mother decided to sneak over the border into China, where a trader spotted them. In exchange for not giving them away, he demanded sex with Ms Park, then just 13.

"My mom offered to be raped in order to protect me," she said simply.

Later, after her father had rejoined them in China but died of lung cancer, Ms Park and her mother met up with a group heading to Mongolia.

"We walked and crawled across the Gobi desert, evading Chinese police, kidnappers and wild animals. We followed the compass, but it broke, so we followed the stars to freedom... we wanted to live as human beings," she said.

During the 1994-1998 famine hundreds of thousands starved to death. Ordinary North Koreans focused their energies on scavenging to stay alive.

Among them was Mr Kim, who was 12 when his father died of hunger in 2002, and his mother and sister left for China to try to find food.

"This isn't just my story, but the story of millions of North Korean people," said 24-year-old Mr Kim, telling how once orphaned he would wander the streets rummaging through trash cans.

"Hunger is humiliation, hunger is hopelessness," said Mr Kim.

When his mother and sister left for China, he never thought it might be for good.

"My sister and I had never been separated before and I always thought we would be together forever. So when she was leaving I didn't even say goodbye properly and I didn't even give her a hug," Mr Kim said.

"I think this has been one of my biggest regrets in my life."

When his mother returned she was alone, having sold his sister to a man in the belief that she may have a better life, according to Mr Kim's account.

Mr Kim, who now studies in New York, after himself escaping to China in 2006, urged the audience in Washington not to judge his mother harshly - as he still tries to track down his sister.

"So many North Korean mothers are forced to make these kind of heartbreaking decisions."

Both the young defectors urged people to work to help North Koreans still living under a totalitarian regime.

"I truly believe there is an opportunity for all of us to help North Korea change and open up. And when that happens the North Korean people will be finally able to live the lives that they deserve," said Ms Park.

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