Tongil Mom, a group comprised of North Korean refugee women working to be reunited with their children, visited the University this past Tuesday to speak with the student human rights advocacy group, Liberty in North Korea.
“The main point of this event [is] so that students can meet North Koreans and learn about their experiences from their own perspective,” Cameron Hicks, fourth-year College student and executive board member of Liberty in North Korea, said.
Hicks said she wanted the event to challenge students’ preconceived notions about North Korea.
“I think that sometimes it’s easy to forget when all we see in American media is news about nuclear weapons and political issues,” Hicks said. “But the fact of the matter is that there are 24 million civilians that live in that country and they’re dealing with a lot of humanitarian issues so we should remember them also and strive to support them.”
Hicks said she hoped attendees would leave with compassion for the struggles North Koreans are overcoming.
With the help of a Korean interpretor the women of Tongil Mom shared personal testimonies of how they defected from North Korea, their time in China as forced brides and how they eventually resettled in South Korea.
Many North Korean women leave their country due to intense struggle and relocate to China, where they are often sold and forced to be brides for Chinese men. While these North Korean refugee women have children with these men, many are still forced by the Chinese government to go back to North Korea. This forced repatriation causes many women to never see their children again.
Each woman who spoke at the event currently has a child in China from whom they are separated.
“I felt that we needed to come together and tell the world about the situation of these children left behind in China and also to visit different places, to come to the U.S. and meet people like you at U.Va. to raise awareness, generate interest and get your help to work on this situation together,” Tongil Mom member Lee Young Hee said.
Tongil Mom has three main parts in its petition, which is directed to the governments of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Korea. These include calling for proper identification papers for children born to North Korean refugees in China, humanitarian measures for mothers who defected from North Korea to be able to exercise rights as birth mothers to their children and giving these children the right to choose with which parent they live.
The group is asking for the right to meet and spend time and be reunited with their children, Tongil Mom Executive Director Kim Jeong Ah said.
“Obviously, the Chinese government is not going to stop its policy of repatriation overnight, but I believe if we approach the people in China, the people with a [conscience], the people who believe in human rights in China and if we approach this using social media then we can definitely try to make a change regarding the situation,” Kim said.
The Tongil Mom members urged students at the event to like their Facebook page and to spread their message. To be able to to do their work — which includes speaking tours and surveying women’s stories — the group needs funding, but so far has not received any from the South Korean government.
“We want to set up a website for children in China to look up the whereabouts of their mothers,” Kim said. “We have all of these ideas to reunite a lot of mothers so they can hug their children again, but we need all the help we can get.”
Correction - This article incorrectly referred to the Koran interpreter as a North Korean translator. Additionally, China attempts to send the women back to North Korea, not South Korea, as the article previously stated.