We are in Ansan, about an hour and a half’s commute south of Seoul by subway. It is suburban, leafy. The rainy season has broken for a few days and we have sun for the first time in weeks.
My mentor is driving us around in his minivan on one of our countless errands. He is, essentially, a fixer for refugees—he is in charge of a flock of fifty or so at a time, and helps them fill out all the paperwork they need to get bank accounts, cheap hospital visits, identification and registration at the local offices, etc. Helps them find dentists who will work with them to fix their teeth; helps them smoke cockroaches out of the public housing apartments they are moving into; helps them find used furniture stores and bargain with the shopkeepers. I wish I had a fixer like him. I think this time we are going to the hospital.
He has two cell phones, one a Samsung Galaxy S2 (his personal phone) and the other an iPhone 4 (this one just for the numbers of refugees). He takes both of them everywhere he goes, usually stacked one on top of the other. One rings and he holds them both up to his ear, stacked. Or, if they both ring, he double-fists them. He is crazy.
Anyway, he dials the number of a ten-year-old on his list. They talk for a bit—just checking in, have you eaten lunch, that kind of thing—before he tells the kid to sing us a song. The kid jumps into a popular North Korean song. He sings for about fifteen seconds, and it sounds about like you would expect from a ten-year-old singing a song without backup into a cell phone. On a drama the background music would come in after five seconds or so, but here we lack dramatic background music. My mentor says “that’s enough,” but the kid doesn’t hear. “Taeryeong-ah! Taeryeong-ah!” my mentor is yelling into the cell (on speaker), holding the bottom of the phone up to his mouth the way you do when you want to make sure someone can hear you. The kid does not hear; he is still singing the song. In the back seat of the van an older North Korean woman is quietly crying, her face turned against the window. She is thinking of her own ten-year-old child in China; the woman had been forced into marrying a Chinese man, and had a kid with him, and still did not like her husband, and when they finally separated he would not let her take the kid too. So she was crying, listening to this faceless kid in Ansan sing a North Korean song, remembering her own child left behind in China. Most likely, she will never see her child again.
These stories are common. China is behind most of them. North Korea, of course, makes life very difficult inside North Korea. But to leave North Korea, virtually every single refugee goes through China, which has a treaty agreeing to send all North Korean refugees back to North Korea.
Because North Koreans cannot exist legally in China, they must hide. They must rely on the generosity of those willing to help them. Sometimes the people who are willing to help them are not perfect human beings and want a wife and a son out of the bargain. And, because the threat of deportation to North Korea is always present and rather compelling, most of the time those people can get what they want.
This is one of the difficulties even for those who are lucky enough to escape North Korea.
But the song was nice, and the kid singing it sounded happy. He was adjusting well to his new life in South Korea, as most young people do. I do not know what he had to go through to get here, and I do not know the story behind where his parents are. But I his song was a glimpse of something better.