Defector finds freedom in daughterThree months after arriving from China, where she was born 12 years ago, Yu-rim, a North Korean defector, lost her mother to pneumonia at a hospital in central Seoul. Her father, a Chinese national with whom her mother was forced to live after escaping from the North, is still in China.
Yu-rim had been living with her mother, Jeong Ye-young, 32, who made her way to the South two years ago. Jeong was abandoned by her parents at a young age. By 13, she was out on the streets begging for food.
This was during the late 1990s, and for the first time, South Korea’s economy was pulling far ahead of the North’s. As the South turned outward, focusing on exporting more goods, the North turned inward, focusing on its Juche philosophy of self-reliance, and things only got worse.
Four years later, someone told Jeong she could make a fortune in China. She figured she had nothing to lose, and that year, at 17, she illegally crossed the heavily fortified border.
But upon her arrival, her broker sold her to a Chinese man, telling her she would be “killed” if she resisted. Jeong was forced to live with the man in northeast China’s Liaoning Province.
There were no windows in the house and the lights rarely came on.
After a year, Jeong was pregnant. She told herself she would flee as soon as she gave birth, but when Yu-rim was born, she found in her daughter a reason to live.
It was around that time Jeong showed symptoms of pneumonia. She coughed painfully, but didn’t have the money for medicine.
She left the house and told her husband she would go into the city to earn money. Yu-rim was four at the time.
She began working in a local restaurant, but was caught by Chinese authorities one day and deported back to North Korea, where she was sent to a prison camp.
Upon her release several years later, Jeong fled to China once more and was reunited with her daughter. She began working again, but lost consciousness one day and woke up in a hospital, where the doctor told her the pneumonia had gotten worse and that she was running out of time.
Soon after, Jeong got in touch with a North Korean friend who had defected to South Korea. Her friend described the South in glowing detail, and said a doctor there could possibly cure her.
Jeong arrived in the South in 2014 and decided to bring Yu-rim over once she was settled. The first thing she would have to do would be to make Yu-rim a passport.
When Jeong was in China, she couldn’t file for her daughter’s citizenship because she was an illegal immigrant. She couldn’t get legally married with her husband, either.
Jeong wired money to her husband, who then took a paternity test and helped Yu-rim become a Chinese citizen. Her passport was issued shortly thereafter.
Yu-rim arrived in South Korea in July 2016, but never managed to blend in. She couldn’t forgive her mother, whom she viewed as a traitor.
Jeong hoped to mend their relationship. She held Yu-rim in her arms and spoke to her tirelessly, trying to make up for lost time. The breakthrough came one recent evening when Jeong asked Yu-rim what she liked most about life in the South.
“I love eating your food,” Yu-rim answered. Jeong welled up at hearing this.
On Oct. 28, Jeong died, leaving behind a daughter who couldn’t stand that she had never told her mother how she truly felt.
After her mother’s passing, Yu-rim said, “I forgive you.”
BY CHE SEUNG-KI [firstname.lastname@example.org]