North Korea's Forgotten Orphans: They Live in China

Elisabeth Braw wrote this story for and the Huffington Post.

Five-year-old Eun-jong has to live with strangers in northeastern China. Her father, a farmer, is unable to take care of her, and her mother has been expelled from the country. Eun-jong is one of thousands of children to North Korean mothers and Chinese fathers who have effectively been made.

An estimated 70% of North Koreans living illegally in China are women, many of whom live with Chinese men and have children with them. "A large number were sold to Chinese men by human traffickers", explains Caleb Choi, a South Korean pastor who helps North Korean refugees in China. "Some voluntarily married a Chinese man to get somewhere to live and food to eat." In both cases, physical abuse is common.

Particularly since China began to enforce its policy of repatriating North Korean refugees four years ago, children from these relationships have been caught in heartbreaking limbo. China expels mothers without their children. "The trauma of forced repatriation is increased by the sudden separation of mother and child", explains Tim Pieters, an American whose organization, Helping Hands Korea, assists North Korean refugees. "And the father often sees the mother as just a purchase and doesn't feel responsible for the children. Other men are disabled or very poor and are unable to care for their children."

As a result, up to 25,000 children -- estimates vary -- are now de facto orphans. "At the moment, a few missionaries look after these children, but the number of helpers is far too small", reports Choi. Many Chinese street children are, in fact, North Korean orphans. Adds Human Rights Watch China expert Kay Seok: "The Chinese government should allow UNHCR and aid organizations to assist North Korean refugees, including children. And the international community should pressure Beijing to stop summarily arresting and repatriating North Koreans."

Background: Between 100,000 and 400,000 North Koreans live illegally in China. China denies the UNHCR access to these residents since it considers them economic migrants rather than refugees. Children living in China are entitled to education, but to enroll in school a child needs identification papers. Since requesting such documents exposes illegal residents, families with a North Korean parent are usually unable to send their children to school. Others succeed by bribing officials. (Source: Human Rights Watch).