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ICC NOTE: This article provides a closer look at the suffering endured by the six North Korean refugees before arriving to the U.S. The six have been very open in sharing their personal accounts of religious persecution, opening the eyes of many to the realities of Christian persecution in East Asia .

Refugees recall lives of enslavement, fear

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Los Angeles Times

By Valerie Reitman

Los Angeles Times

May 22

Six North Korean defectors – the first refugees the United States has admitted from the totalitarian nation – arrived in Southern California on Saturday bearing accounts of famine, sexual enslavement, torture and repression.

In interviews with a reporter in Washington last week, group members told harrowing stories of their path from North Korea to the United States .

Chan Mi Shin, 20, spoke of foraging for grasses to make a broth, the only ersatz food the family could find, 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 said she was sold into marriage three times within a year of turning 16.

Choi, 24, who stands about 5 feet 7 inches, is taller than the others, perhaps because her father, a 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 she said the agent instead sold her to a married man who confined her to a small room and raped her repeatedly for two years.

Na Omi’s family was slowly starving when she fled to China . She said 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 said 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 mandated that the United States take in refugees, but before this month none, had been admitted, in part because South Korea and China thought such a move would set back six-nation talks aimed at getting North Korea to dismantle nuclear weapons.

A handful of North Koreans who first resettled in South Korea have applied for asylum in the United States , claiming they were treated badly in South Korea . One such application was granted in April.

At 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. In a meeting with a House of Representatives subcommittee, he said, “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.

“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,” Lefkowitz said.