Six North Korean defectors -- the first refugees the U.S. has admitted from the totalitarian nation -- arrived in Southern California on Saturday bearing accounts of famine, sexual enslavement, torture and repression.
The group was met at Los International Airport by leaders of four large Korean congregations in Southern California, all members of the Korean Church Coalition, which has pushed the government to take in North Korean refugees.
They hugged each of the refugees and handed them bouquets of fresh flowers as they emerged near the baggage area, accompanied by Chun Ki Won, the missionary who helped them escape via an underground railroad through China and Southeast Asia.
Before leaving the airport, church leaders joined hands with the defectors and prayed for North Koreans still living in the hermit kingdom or hiding in China.
"This is the moment we've been hoping and praying for for years," said Sam Kim, a lawyer and member of the Bethel Korean Church in Irvine.
The refugees, four women and two men ranging in age from 20 to 36, got off the plane wearing vivid new clothes, jeans and brightly colored sweat gear they said would have been forbidden in North Korea.
Although it's not certain where the group will settle, church members have offered to help the defectors start new lives in California, home to the largest number of Koreans outside the Korean peninsula.
In interviews with a reporter in Washington last week, group members told harrowing stories of their paths from North Korea to the U.S.
Chan Mi Shin, 20, spoke of foraging for grasses, the only food her family could find, to make broth and of being so hungry during the famine that killed millions that she started hallucinating that an accordion's keys were cookies and candies.
Speaking through an interpreter, she and the three other women -- Na Omi, Young Nah "Deborah" Choi and Ha Nah -- explained how each had been sold as brides or prostitutes to already married Chinese men who paid the equivalent of a few hundred dollars for them. Shin was sold into marriage three times within a year of turning 16.
Choi, 24, who stands about 5 feet 7, is taller than the others, perhaps because her father, a Communist Party official, had a higher standard of living than most North Koreans. But after Choi's father was sent to prison for five years, the family was ostracized and Choi was banished from school.
She paid a broker to help her escape to China in 2004, but the agent instead sold her to a married man who confined her to a small room and raped her repeatedly for two years.
Omi's family was slowly starving when she fled to China. A man she hoped would help her instead sold her as a bride to a Chinese man, whose family treated her like a slave. She was eventually deported and spent time in a North Korean prison before once again crossing into China.
The 2004 North Korean Human Rights Act mandates that the United States take in refugees, but until this month, none had been admitted, in part because South Korea and China thought that such a move would set back six-nation talks aimed at getting North Korea to dismantle nuclear weapons.
A few North Koreans who resettled in South Korea have applied for asylum in the U.S., claiming they were treated badly in South Korea. One such application was granted in April.
Around the same time, Jay Lefkowitz, the special envoy on North Korean human rights appointed by President Bush last summer, signaled a sharp change in U.S. policy.
"We will press to make it clear to our friends and allies in the region that we are prepared to accept North Korean refugees for resettlement here," Lefkowitz said in a meeting with a House of Representatives subcommittee.
"The United States has a tradition of being a refuge to vulnerable people seeking haven from despotic regimes, and we will do our part to help this vulnerable population," said Lefkowitz, who is said to be close to Bush and was a policy advisor during his first term.
Like many defectors, new U.S. arrival Young Chul "Joseph" Shin, 32, the brother of fellow refugee Chan Mi Shin, went to China in 1997, during the famine, seeking food for his family.
He recalled his astonishment upon seeing the abundance of food even in the rural areas just across the river from North Korea. Dogs were being given rice porridge to eat, he recalls, "big bowls of it." Rice is a luxury in North Korea, he said, eaten only on one's birthday and New Year's.
Shin said he was sent back to North Korea three times in six years, each time crossing the river back into China. He spent 18 months in labor camps, prison and torture facilities.
"The torture that I experienced, I didn't even know existed," he said. "They would take a wrench and clamp it on my finger and break it."
When asked by a reporter if he still has scars, he pulled up his shirt to reveal faint red marks on his back that remain from beatings with a steel whip.
Chun's Seoul-based Durihana Mission and others maintain a number of clandestine safe houses to hide defectors in northeastern China, where human rights groups estimate anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 North Koreans are living.
Chun spirits defectors out of China by train, bus, car or foot and into sympathetic countries that allow them to go to nations that will take them as refugees. South Korea has taken in about 8,000 North Korean refugees in the past few years, including about 1,400 this year.
During a few days in Washington last week, the refugees began many of their meetings with officials by thanking Bush, members of Congress and others who helped them reach the U.S.
"If it were not for their efforts, we'd still be in China being sold, experiencing severe racism," Omi said.
"Now that we've come here, it's hard to believe that such a world as North Korea can exist," she said.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who was instrumental in getting the refugees to the U.S., said the meeting he attended with the refugees "was one of the most profound I've ever had."
Also in attendance were Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and two members of the House, Republicans Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois and Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania.
Chun described a little of each refugee's experiences; the North Korean women sobbed as they listened.
"I was just stunned at what they had experienced," Brownback said in a telephone interview Friday. "Just to hear their stories and to see their faces. It had that surreal quality.... Only one month ago they were living in China in hiding, and now, here they are sitting in the U.S. Senate office building."
Yet, the refugees seemed to exude an optimism bordering on giddiness when they spoke of their hopes in their new country and the remarkable change in their fortunes.
Omi, for example, who worked as a cook in China, wants to help other North Koreans escape. She said she also wants to learn English and computer skills and get her driver's license. In North Korea, women can't even ride bicycles and must wear skirts. The refugees laughed as she spoke, recalling how girls wore pants under their skirts, hiking up the pant legs so they wouldn't show as they walked by police.)
The North Korean refugees have workers' visas and Social Security numbers that are valid for one year, after which they can apply for permanent residency. Within four years, they can apply for citizenship.
On Saturday, church officials ushered the new arrivals into a van and headed back to Bethel Korean Church for a banquet in the refugees' honor. This morning, the refugees are to be introduced to the rest of Bethel's 5,300-person congregation at the two regular Sunday services.
The refugees are trying to take it all in.
In Manhattan and in New Jersey, where they first stayed on arriving in the U.S. two weeks ago, Joseph Shin said he was struck by "people in all kinds of fashion and different colors. It hit us that we are in a different country."
The size of the houses where they stayed in a suburb of Washington, D.C. -- a neighborhood much like Los Angeles' Hancock Park -- astonished them too, a huge contrast to the single rooms of most North Korean families. The homes are "like a palace or a castle," said his sister, Chan Mi.
Refugee Johan Shin (who is unrelated to the other Shins) described it differently.
"Wasteful," he said.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times