WASHINGTON – A North Korean defector who now resides in the United States recalled through tear-filled eyes on Saturday the death of more than half her family due to starvation and violence at the hands of Chinese and Korean authorities.
Cho Jin Hae spoke at a kick-off protest for North Korea Freedom Week in Washington, D.C. She along with her younger sister and her mother, who is deaf in one ear due to beatings from North Korean officials, are the only survivors of their original family of nine.
"I can't explain to you what kinds of things I underwent and what kinds of things I suffered," said Cho, who was repatriated by Chinese authorities and endured enormous amounts of torture and hardship while imprisoned in North Korea.
She and her surviving family were at the North Korean Freedom protests in front of the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C.
Her father had crossed the border into China to look for food for the family, but was captured and beaten to death on his way back. Cho's oldest sister also went to China to search for food for the family, but was kidnapped and trafficked. Meanwhile, her two-month old sister and grandmother died from starvation in North Korea while waiting for food. Cho did not explain about the other deaths.
"My only prayer is everyone will become like Moses, to pray more earnestly and urge China to stop repatriating North Koreans," said Cho, who became a Christian in China. She was urging fellow believers to pray that God would raise people up like Moses to lead North Koreans out of North Korea.
At least 500,000 North Koreans are believed to have crossed the border over to China in the past 10 years.
North Korean refugees are officially considered illegal economic migrants by the Chinese government and therefore receive no legal protection in China. They are harshly treated before being deported back to North Korea despite the fact that the U.N. Special Rapporteur on North Korea declared North Koreans who flee to China, "refugees."
Back in North Korea, the repatriated refugees face imprisonment, torture and sometimes execution for leaving the country – a state crime.
North Korea is one of the most repressive regimes in the world and is ranked by watchdog group Open Doors as the world's worst persecutor of Christians. Citizens of the communist state are forced to adhere to a personality cult that revolves around worshipping the current dictator.
During Saturday's kick-off event, Suzanne Scholte, chairman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition (NKFC), confessed that early on in the campaign years ago, she and NKFC vice chairman Sin U. Nam questioned if their North Korea freedom campaign was having any impact.
But she gained hope when she heard the following year that two North Korean women trafficked into China decided to continue to live because they heard their names read by Scholte during a radio program.
Each year, the North Korea Freedom campaign reads a list of names of North Korean refugees and humanitarian workers known to be seized by Chinese authorities.
Cho Jin Hae and her sister and mother were rescued by the famed Rev. Philip Buck, who has helped over 1,000 North Korean refugees hiding in China and over 100 of them escape to South Korea over a period of 10 years. Buck, who was present during the protest and introduced the family he saved, was awarded the Civil Courage Prize in October by The Train Foundation for his "steadfast resistance to evil at great personal risk."
"You are so lucky you are here," said Pastor Heemoon Lee, vice chairman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition and pastor of Hana Presbyterian Church in Maryland, to the people gathered at the D.C. protest. "There are people with no human rights who suffer like animals," he commented about the North Koreans.
Other U.S. cities where protests were held included Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco.
On Tuesday, a Capitol Hill Rally will take place that will feature music by the Pyongyang Musical Mission Troupe, members of Congress, NGO leaders, and North Korean defectors. Then on Thursday, a press conference with Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) will be held.
North Korea Freedom Week events runs from April 26 to May 3.