SAN FRANCISCO (Tribune News Service) — Yu Sunhui calmly recounted how she escaped North Korea by train, jumping off often to avoid the checkpoints. She had to swim across a river to China, where she was sold to human traffickers before she managed to make her way to South Korea in 2010.
Yu’s story is fortunate compared with her sister, who was eight months pregnant when she and her husband were arrested. The couple and their child died in a North Korean prison.
“This pain is in no way unique,” Yu said through an interpreter after arriving Sunday in San Francisco as part of a delegation of North Korean defectors visiting the Bay Area through Thursday.
The visit, organized by the Hometown Mission Association for North Korea in Seattle and Korean Churches Council of San Francisco, includes 29 refugees, most of whom are living in the South Korean capital of Seoul.
This is the third delegation Seattle Pastor John Yoon, who escaped North Korea in 1950 and has been living in the U.S. for 36 years, has arranged to help Americans better understand the plight of North Koreans. Previous groups visited the states of Washington and Hawaii.
Earlier this month, the Obama administration sanctioned North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, for human rights abuses and for moving ahead with the country’s nuclear and ballistic missiles programs. The sanctions freeze the assets of the ruler and other top North Korean officials and prohibit them from doing business with Americans.
Yoon said he wants North Korean refugees who now have the freedom to travel to learn about the United States, and he wants the world to better understand the abuses that North Koreans are undergoing at the hands of the government.
Since the 1950s, as many as 300,000 North Koreans have fled the country, primarily to China, Russia and South Korea. Human rights groups estimate that only about 200 North Koreans are living in the United States.
Ju Yeongsun, one of the visiting refugees, escaped from North Korea after her two children, husband and mother-in-law died of starvation in 1997 during the famine of the 1990s.
Ju, 51, was one of a just handful of delegates who were willing to speak to the media as many fear for the safety of family still living in North Korea. She and her 15-year-old daughter, Eunhye, are living in South Korea. She said through an interpreter that she has a lot of pain but places her trust in God.
The visit was also supported by other groups, including the Asia Society Northern California, the Human Rights Foundation, the Consulate General of Korea in San Francisco and the Global Children Foundation.
Yu, 59, a former lieutenant in the North Korean military, recently obtained a green card and moved to Southern California, where she hopes to help other North Korean refugees better adjust to life in this country. She said she would like Americans to better understand North Korea.
North Koreans are taught the United States is the “ultimate enemy,” but Yu described her experiences with Americans as “exactly the opposite of the way we were brainwashed.”