A North Korean defector recounted Thursday the "hell" she experienced during a decade full of abuse, starvation and enslavement as an orphan in the rogue nation, a fate that too many children are still experiencing today under the Kim regime.
As part of a weeklong advocacy effort in support of human rights reform in North Korea, Park Ji-Hye told attendees at an event held at the Family Research Council headquarters that she spent time in two different orphanages after her father died of starvation during a famine in the 1990s.
With her mom having been trafficked to China, Park said she knows too well the desperate situation facing North Korean orphans today, as they have no social protections guaranteed by the government and are treated as property in the country that has been ruled by the repressive Kim dynasty over the past 70 years.
"It was just like going through hell for me to live in an orphanage, then running around by myself and being trafficked to China," Park said through a translator during a 45-minute recounting of her life. "It was a long journey of suffering. I know for sure even now there are people going through the same thing, whether it's in an orphanage or in China."
While much attention has been paid in the last several years to the fact that thousands of Koreans are worked to death in labor camps, not as much focus has been paid to the human rights abuses being committed in North Korean orphanages, said Suzanne Schulte, head of the North Korea Freedom Coalition and a key organizer behind North Korea Freedom Week.
"I can tell you when we brought the first survivors of the political prison camp to testify [before Congress] in the late 1990s, people did not believe the stories because there were only a few witnesses," Schulte said.
"Now, there have been hundreds of folks that have been able to escape and testify about the horrible political prison camps that are really death camps for innocent men, women and children. Today, we're facing that same issue except now it is the orphans."
Schulte, who has been involved in North Korea human rights advocacy for over 20 years, said that many people don't know what is happening to orphans in North Korea because "there are very few survivors."
Thursday's North Korea Freedom Week event at FRC was the first time Park has shared her story on the international stage, according to an event organizer.
Life in two orphanages
Park was born into a family of four children. She has a younger sister, an older sister, and a younger brother and her mother left home on a quest to run a business in hopes of supporting her family. However, Park's mom ended up being trafficked into neighboring China.
In the 1990s famine spread throughout North Korea. It's been estimated that between 330,000 up to 3 million people died as a result of starvation. One of those people was Park's father, who worked as a miner.
While her younger sister was adopted and her older sister was allowed to live at her grandmother's house (before defecting at the age of 13), Park and her younger brother were not as fortunate.
The first orphanage they went to, she said, was a state-run orphanage where countless children were being housed in a three-story building.
"The facility was awful and they didn't provide any food to children," she explained. "So many children tried to escape and jumped out of the building."
Park and her younger brother eventually escaped and fled to their grandmother's house. During that time, her brother became ill and they both stayed at their grandmother's house until he recovered before being sent to a second orphanage where they were held for about 10 years.
She said it was a private orphanage run by a married couple. The couple themselves were honored as "heroes" by the Kim regime, she recalled.
According to Park, there were 170 children at the orphanage. Each bedroom housed as many as 30 children, she added.
The family that ran the orphanage also ran a farm at the same time. Park said that a typical day for the orphans started at 4 a.m. as they were forced to work for two hours on the farm.
At 6 a.m., she added, the children would then be forced to march in the streets to wake people up. Following that, they would head back to the orphanage for breakfast.
After breakfast, the school-aged children would go to school while the rest of the children would go back to work in the field.
At school, Park said, the facilities were awful and only one textbook was provided for the whole class. Also, the students were not provided with lunch at the school.
After school, the orphans returned and were forced to go into the mountain to fetch firewood. According to Park, each orphan had a quota to meet. If the orphan didn't meet his or her quota, they would not be given dinner.
This meant that Park, whose younger brother was only 6 at the time and too weak to carry his weight, had to work doubly hard to ensure that both she and her brother would eat each day.
At night, the children would be called into "self-criticism sessions," park added.
"Not only did we have to confess what we did wrong that day, we also had to criticize others for what they did wrong," she remembers. "Since we lived together, we basically took a turn to say, 'I would criticize you today and you can criticize me tomorrow.'"
"Those who made mistakes, they were scolded and punished," she continued.
Following the self-criticism session came the "recreation session," when the children were made to sing and dance.
"But even if the children cried, they had to smile and pretend they were having a good time during singing and dancing," she said.
It wouldn't be until about 10 p.m. that children would be allowed to go to bed on most nights, Park explained.
"That is how I lived for about 10 years of my life," she contended.
The three sons
Park said that manual labor was only part of the problem with the orphanage. The worst part of the orphanage, she recalled, was the three sons of the couple that owned the orphanage.
Although the sons were all married, "they considered the girls in the orphanage as their possession or slave they could use."
"Whenever they liked, they designated one person. There was no choice for the girls that were designated and anyone who did not fulfill their needs or request, then all the children were summoned. In the morning, we found out the first thing, they would share who was called and who got pregnant by the three sons."