He was a trombone player in North Korea who liked to whistle songs for his wife. His son gained a medical degree in Pyongyang and wanted to become a professor.
Sometime late last year, the two men disappeared into the North Korean gulags that hold a special place of punishment for defectors caught by Chinese authorities and sent back over the border.
“That’s when I started to think it was better off if my entire family just died,” said Heo Yeong-hui, who fled North Korea in 2014 and paid smugglers to try to bring her husband and son through China to reunite in South Korea. “I thought, ‘I would pay for my husband and son to be killed.’ If they could end their lives, I would give any amount of money they asked for. But, of course, that isn’t possible.”
Even as diplomacy moves at a dizzying pace with North Korea, many rights activists and others take issue with what’s missing. So far, the talks have cautiously avoided a direct spotlight on the North’s staggering record of abuses and political repression in apparent attempts to keep the outreach with Kim Jong Un from unraveling.
Also little discussed in the high-level dialogue is Beijing’s role in shipping back defectors snared by Chinese security forces. Any comprehensive peace deal with Kim must deeply involve China, the political and economic big brother of the North. But a full reckoning on rights abuses will also touch on China’s practice of declaring the defectors to be economic migrants rather than people fleeing oppression — and deporting them.
“Sadly, through thick and thin in the bilateral relationship, one of the things Pyongyang and Beijing continually agree on is they don’t want North Koreans seeking freedom by fleeing across China,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “There is no sugarcoating the fact — North Korea systematically tortures every North Korean sent back by China.”
A few North Korean defectors who managed to evade the Chinese authorities have become noted dissenters-in-exile. Some were hosted at the White House in February. Most others strive to keep their profiles low.
This was Heo’s world. She agreed to tell her story to The Washington Post, abandoning the normal cloak of anonymity used by defectors worried that speaking openly could endanger relatives back home.
She is taking a chance. Her voice and others like hers, she believes, are needed to shape the debate over North Korea’s future and efforts to hold the regime accountable. She takes inspiration from a former North Korean diplomat in Britain, Thae Yong-ho, who defected with his family in 2016.
She quotes him.
“Each individual needs to do what they can to free the state of slavery,” said Heo, 58, in the Seoul offices of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, a clearinghouse for details from defectors.
She described the estimated 30,000 North Korea defectors in the South as “a form of protest” in itself.
“But it is the people still in North Korea that need to awaken,” she said. “Until then, the people on the outside need to influence them a lot; and only then can there be change.”
It’s impossible to put a precise number on North Korean defectors sent back by China. Most groups, including the Database Center, say it could be in the hundreds of thousands since the 1990s. The number of North Koreans attempting to flee, however, has apparently declined in the past year, as China increased patrols enforcing tighter U.N. sanctions on the North.
China has resisted international calls to end the repatriations, despite international pressure. A 2014 U.N. report said those returned could face being “forcibly ‘disappeared’ into political prison camps, imprisoned in ordinary prisons or even summarily executed.”
For many years, Heo and her husband, Choi Seong-ga, and their son, Choi Gyeong-hak, lived in relative comfort in Hyesan, near the Chinese border. Heo, a talented singer, was a professor at the city’s University of Arts. Her husband played trombone in the Ryanggang musical performance group, which appeared at regional festivals. He playfully called Heo “older sister” because she was two years his senior. She once performed in front of the North’s first leader, Kim Il Sung, who would summer in mountains near Hyesan.
During the famine of the 1990s, the family took some solace in thinking that everyone in the country was suffering. To gain a little extra money, Heo began to make home-brew alcohol from rotting corn. The profits would buy rice.
“To others it probably seemed like I was living a comfortable life while there were people starving around me,” she said. “I lived alongside those dying of starvation. So I began to think, ‘How should I be living my life in this type of world?’ ”
It took a sharp turn five years ago. The Ministry of State Security asked her to monitor one of her students, a young woman who came under suspicion because of a sister in China. Heo balked.
“They tried to scare me,” Heo said. “They said, ‘Is your son more important than a student?’”
Heo was shaken. She pulled the student aside and suggested she try to flee North Korea. It was only a matter of time before authorities arrested you, Heo confided.
Security agents found out, and Heo and the student were sent to a detention facility. It would be 76 days for Heo. She said she was never beaten or interrogated, but was left in a cell with others around the clock. Thirst became really bad.
“They wanted to intimidate me, educate me into knowing what they were capable of,” she said. “For me, seeing [the prisoners] was like torture, listening to them being beaten and crying after being interrogated.”
When Heo was released, her mind was made up. There were two choices: either attempt to leave or jump to her death from their fourth-floor apartment.
“Even after I made the decision to defect, I thought it over a lot,” she said. “I couldn’t tell my son and I couldn’t tell my husband. That’s the type of country that North Korea is … So I thought, ‘Let me do it first. Let me go through the dangerous journey first and, if [South Korea] is a place that is worth it, I will bring them over.'”
The student jailed with Heo had military contacts and paid the equivalent of about $1,800 for a clear path over the border. The two women waded across the Yalu River on Sept. 26, 2014, into China. They managed to reach Thailand and boarded flights for Seoul. Heo arrived Dec. 18, 2014.
The planning to bring her husband and son began at once. Heo found a job as a housekeeper at a resort on the holiday island of Jeju. But she was crushed at the price demanded by smugglers, known as brokers. They wanted $20,000 each to bring her husband and son out of North Korea, and another $12,000 to get them to Thailand, she said. Friends agreed to lend her the money.
Heo arranged for the broker to identify himself to her husband using a lyric from a Japanese folk song she used to sing to their son. In late September 2016, Heo’s husband and son, then 28, slipped out of North Korea. Heo received a call from her husband on Sept. 28. They were on the move, somewhere between Changbai and Yanji, still near the North Korean border. She would never hear from him again.
At some point, they were sent back to North Korea — seen last summer at the Provincial Ministry of State Security Holding Facility in Hyesan. Their apartment was seized by the state.
“Maybe if I had never been detained, I would never have begun to think like this,” she said. “But I did. And the more I knew about [North Korea] I didn’t want to live there anymore. I just wanted to escape. Whether I died or would leave, I just wanted to escape.”