I was having one of those lousy days when everything seems to go wrong. Then Li Na Kim told me her story, and I realized most of us haven’t the faintest clue about what trouble really is.
I met Kim last fall at Bloor Street United in Toronto, the home of Alpha Korean United, a 47-year-old congregation that has become a hub for North Koreans who have fled hunger and repression in one of the most shuttered countries on the planet. Kim is one of them, a refugee claimant since 2012.
She is 55, widowed and the mother of two sons, one of whom is currently in jail in North Korea due to persistent attempts to flee the country. Those attempts began in the winter of 2002 when Kim and her son crossed the shallow Tumen River on foot into China. They found work on a farm through a labour broker, a man she later realized was actually a slave trafficker. She and her son fled to another city, but the Chinese police caught up with them, arrested Kim’s son and deported him back to North Korea.
In 2004, Kim was herself arrested, expelled and sentenced to a series of deplorable North Korean work camps. In tears, she points to her misshapen forearm, the result of a fracture that was never treated. She also walks with a limp because of a poorly healed broken foot. Beatings, starvation and years of forced labour have left her with a litany of other health problems.
Kim’s account of her treatment in detention is borne out by a scathing 372-page UN report on human rights in North Korea released last month. The inquiry chair said that atrocities are occurring on a scale reminiscent of Nazi-occupied Europe.
After his release from prison, Kim’s son fled again to China. Once more he was arrested, deported and jailed. How did she make her way to Canada after being released from prison? Other than to say it involved fleeing to China again, she was reluctant to divulge much, likely for fear of compromising the pipeline that has seen the number of North Koreans seeking asylum in Canada jump significantly in the last few years.
Now she has a new fear. South Korea’s constitution recognizes North Koreans as South Korean nationals. Reacting to the spike in North Korean refugee claimants, Canada recently added South Korea to its list of safe countries of origin, meaning hundreds of North Koreans living in asylum here now face deportation to South Korea, where they can expect to live as second-class citizens.
In a case late last year that sent a shockwave through the Korean refugee community, an appeals panel overturned an earlier decision that granted a North Korean woman asylum, citing the new rules. What’s more, North Koreans who resettle in the south are considered traitors by the regime in Pyongyang. Their families still living in the north face harsh reprisals; Kim is afraid her son will be declared a political prisoner and jailed indefinitely if she is deported.
Kim remains in limbo, unsure whether she’ll stay in Canada or be uprooted again. The Alpha United congregation and other Korean groups are a source of support, but she’s fragile, wracked with worry. She says she arrived in Canada full of hope that she would someday be reunited with her son. With the new rules, she now fears that by coming here she might have actually jeopardized her dream.
It was getting dark when I left the church. I thought of my own grown kids and suddenly wished they weren’t so far away. I thought of Kim, graciously bowing as we parted ways, and remembered some old but never-tired words of wisdom: there but for the grace of God go I.
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