North Korean escapee and survivor of extreme poverty, oppression, and abandonment, Songmi Han, addresses the 15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for her remarks.
My mom gave me two lives. First, when she gave birth to me in 1993. Second, when she rescued me from North Korea in 2011. If there’s a hero in my story, it’s her. North Korea might be the worst place on earth to raise a child, but North Korean mothers are brave. And they’ll do anything they can to save their children.
My name is Songmi Han. I was born in rural North Korea to an affluent family, but when I was 3 years old, my father started beating my mom. Finally, she divorced him and I ended up attending Elementary School for only one year. We lived in a barn with cows for two years. But I have fond memories of that time because I developed such a deep relationship with my mom
Two days before my 12th birthday, she said she had to leave but she’d be back by October 10. She wrote down a multiplication table for me to memorize. I studied hard. But October 10th came and went. I started to panic. Where was she?
I stayed at my Auntie’s house. When I heard a train approaching, I’d run to the station and ask strangers: “Have you see a lady who looks like this?” And I wasn’t the only one – the train stations were filled with homeless children. Many couldn’t even recall their mothers’ faces.
Eventually, she sent us a letter – just wait a little longer, she said.
So I waited. But life in North Korea was miserable. My grandfather starved to death. My uncle starved to death. Another uncle threw himself in front of a train. I’d walk down the street and see dead children and dead adults. Many times, I almost starved to death, and I considered suicide. Three different times, my mom sent brokers to rescue me. But my aunt warned me that I would get sold in China, or that they’d harvest my organs, so I stayed.
When I was 15 years old, I saw my first public execution. They forced everyone in our area, including the woman’s husband and four years old daughter, to watch as they tied her up and shot her three times. I’ll never forget hearing the gunshots and watching her tumble forward. I was so, so scared.
When I was 17, I remember thinking, “I just don’t have a future in North Korea. And I really miss my mom.” I had memorized the phone number of the broker my mom sent years ago, so I called him and whispered, “I’m ready to go.” He said, “Are you sure this time?” And I said, “Yes.”
I didn’t tell anyone. The broker wouldn’t let me sit with him on the train. I was so scared. Then, a guard checking IDs asked me, “Where are you going?” I lied and I told him I’m visiting my grandma in Hyesan. “No you’re not,” he said, “I know you’re going to China!” He started beating me and kicking me. Then he dropped me off at the office in the train station, and a different guard tried to rape me. I pushed him and ran until I saw a group of soldiers. “Please help me! He’s trying to do strange things!” And I scared the guard away. I asked the soldiers if I could have some money to call my grandma. Then I ran to a payphone and called the broker. This time, we made it to the border. I followed two smugglers through the freezing cold water of the Tumen river. The guards shot at us, but luckily they missed, and we made it to China.
The next morning, the broker called my mom. I was so happy. I thought I’d get to see her for the first time in six years! But she said she was in South Korea. I followed the brokers through China, Laos, Thailand, and I arrived in South Korea on May 20, 2011, my mom’s birthday.
Reuniting with my mom was the happiest moment of my entire life. I couldn’t stop crying. But my Mom was confused. “Are you sure you’re my daughter? You’re so short!” My aunt had told her that I had grown so tall.
It’s taken me years to start healing from a lifetime of trauma. As I was preparing to give this speech, my mom showed me her diary. On August 26, 2006, my Mom sold herself as a wife to a Chinese man and then she ran away to South Korea, so she could work and save money to rescue me. I hope North Korean children waiting for their moms can hear this. They need to know that they’re in their mother’s hearts forever and they will do anything they can to save them from this horrible regime. I tell my mom all the time, “Thank you so much, Mom. You are so brave!” And my mom tells me, “No, Songmi, you are so brave! I’m so proud of you.”