top of page

'A lot of punishment, no food, hard work': North Korean defector's fears for sister who will 'die in jail'

By Helen-Ann Smith, Asia correspondent

January 30, 2024

It must sometimes feel that ghosts and fragments are all she has left of them - such is the way when you're a defector from North Korea.

But there was a very particular, very raw pain when she spoke about her younger sister, Kim Cheol-ok.

Cheol-ok escaped from North Korea to China in the late 1990s. But within days she was sold into marriage by traffickers and spent the next 25 years in the country - only to be arrested in 2023 by Chinese police and deported back to the country she sacrificed so much to escape.

She has, in a sense, just vanished.

And she is not alone. Human rights groups have told Sky News they believe the deportation of North Korean defectors from China is continuing "apace".

It comes after October saw the largest mass deportation event in at least a decade, with up to 500 people sent back in just one day. A further 100 were deported during August and September.

It has caused such alarm that China was questioned for the first time on the issue at the UN Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) last week, the fourth such review into China's human rights record since 2009.

We met Ms Kim at her home in Morden, south London. She has her own remarkable story about escaping across the North Korean border into China as a teenager and eventually making it to the UK.

But it is not her story we have come to discuss.

Sold to a husband three times her age

At the time of her flight, Ms Kim did not take her younger sister with her.

Cheol-ok made her journey to China a few years later at the age of 14 to escape the devastating famine that was gripping North Korea.

But within a few days of her escape, Cheol-ok was sold by traffickers to a husband three times her age. Her sister then lost all trace of her for the following two decades.

It wasn't until 2020, with the aid of Chinese social media, that they reconnected against the odds.

"I felt I got all the world," Ms Kim reminisced with a smile, "every day we were talking, just crying, crying."

A dangerous undocumented life

By this time, Cheol-ok was nearly 40 and had a grown-up daughter of her own. She had survived in China for 25 years with regular payments to local officials to avoid being reported, a cost Ms Kim said the family could barely afford.

But North Korean escapees in China have no ID, and no right to work or access basic services like healthcare. It is a dangerous, undocumented life.

"In January she caught coronavirus very hard, very hard," explained Ms Kim, "but she can't go to the hospital, nobody cares. During that time she understood [that she had to leave China]."

"When she got better she said, 'sister, I have to come. If I stay here, I will die like this'."


'It's already too late'

So they made secret plans for her to travel to Vietnam, a well-worn route for North Korean defectors. But just two hours into her journey she was arrested by Chinese police.

Within six months the nightmare scenario for her family came true - with a call from Cheol-ok's daughter saying her mother would be deported to North Korea in just two hours' time.

"It's already too late," Ms Kim said with tears in her eyes, "we can't do anything, what can we do in two hours?"

She now lives with the agony of knowing what likely awaits Cheol-ok back in their home country.


Punishment, no food, hard work

"There will be a lot of punishment, no food in the jail, hard work," she said.

"She doesn't speak Korean anymore, she has no family there, she will die in jail."

When she thought of China, the country she believes abandoned her sister, she choked on her tears.

"Twenty-five years she lived there, it is her home now.

"How could they do that?! Maybe they have a relationship with North Korea, but they shouldn't do that. It's not human, we are not animals. If she goes back to North Korea [she will be treated] like flies, they kill flies."


Mass deportation

The Seoul-based human rights NGO Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG), has worked closely with other agencies tracking deportations. It believes Cheol-ok was in a group of up to 500 others all deported on 9 October, the largest mass deportation event in over a decade.

They have identified five crossing points along the 850-mile border. They believe the majority of people sent back were women, and the identities of most of them are not known.

The most prominent of the crossing points is in the city of Dandong, on the western end of North Korea's border.

The bridge there, which crosses the Yalu River dividing the two countries, is a tourist attraction and a tribute to the Chinese soldiers who used it to join the fighting in the Korean war.

It stood largely empty during the pandemic, as North Korea enforced a strict three-year border closure.

We saw a handful of trucks making the journey across.

"Sometimes there are more, sometimes less," one woman who works under the bridge told us, "sometimes there's no trucks for the whole day, sometimes there are a few more."

It was these border closures that caused such a large backlog in deportations.


Defectors seen as traitors

Multiple reports from inside North Korea say defectors are seen as traitors and punished brutally with imprisonment, torture and possibly execution.

Other accounts say three years of border closures have wrought poverty and starvation.

But China has argued to the UN there is no evidence of such treatment and therefore the deportations are not illegal under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

"There is no such thing as a North Korean 'defector' in China," said Wang Wenbin, spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs when asked by Sky News.

He said: "People who come to China illegally for economic reasons are not refugees. They have violated Chinese law and have disrupted the order of China's entry and exit administration.

"China has always dealt with these people in accordance with the principle of combining domestic law, international law and humanitarianism."


Pressure on China

But international pressure over the issue is growing. For the first time South Korea questioned China at a UN Human Rights Council review.

South Korea's ambassador to the UN office in Geneva, Yun Seong-deok, said Beijing should stop repatriating North Koreans.

However, experts say any such pressure will almost certainly come second to the bigger geopolitical picture in which China needs a stable North Korea.

In the context of the war in Ukraine and the heightening tension between West and East, China's alliance with Russia and other like-minded nations is paramount.

"In Beijing, it's much more about geopolitics, and their primary interest is maintaining good relations with North Korea," explained Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, a legal analyst at TJWG.

"The last thing they want is to destabilize the North Korean state.

"The feared scenario from Beijing is that this kind of exodus, or floodgate, of North Korean escapees would result in the collapse of North Korea, as happened with East Germany back in 1989."

'Stay strong'

These issues feel all the more pressing now in the context of North Korea's recent relationship building with Russia and heightened threats against South Korea.

Some experts believe North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un may seriously be considering conflict.

Back in London, Ms Kim said she will not stop fighting. But it must sometimes feel that no one is listening.

She said she believes she will see Cheol-ok again, and wants to tell her to "stay strong".

But she knows she is a pawn in a much bigger picture.


bottom of page