Oh Young Hui was a vision of calm with her creamy button-down cardigan and pulled-back hair. That was until she tried to explain her life hiding in China as a North Korean refugee with two children. "It's going to be hard for you to imagine," she said, her voice cracking and her eyes welling up.
But she was speaking at a defectors' press conference so she could do just that-help American citizens and lawmakers imagine North Koreans' suffering under Kim Jong Il's regime. Ms. Oh was one of about 20 defectors who gathered in Washington, D.C., on April 28 to lend weight to North Korean Freedom Day, a blitz of rallies, exhibitions, and congressional lobbying meant to call attention to the country's human-rights record.
Ms. Oh now lives in South Korea and devotes her time to highlighting the plight of North Korean women on the run. A gymnast who was once on the North's national team, she escaped to China and said she saw fellow refugees as young as 12 forced into the sex-trafficking rings. Women captured were subject to repatriation under a Chinese law that considers North Korean refugees "economic migrants."
Back home, the women ended up in labor camps. Authorities forced those who were pregnant to undergo abortions, in case Chinese men had fathered their children. Otherwise officials suffocated infants to death. "We had to live like beasts," Ms. Oh said.
Ms. Oh narrowly escaped repatriation herself. During her eight months in China, authorities discovered her 3- and 6-year-old children while she was at work and sent them to the North Korean consulate. Begging on her knees, she persuaded North Korean officials she knew from her days as an elite athlete not to send them home. In 2003 she defected to South Korea.
Ms. Oh's testimony was just one in the day's events organized by the North Korea Freedom Coalition, a group of 22 religious and human-rights groups and individuals. The biggest draw was a rally of about 1,000 on the west lawn of the Capitol, attended by U.S. lawmakers and officials. Activists strapped blown-up photographs of starving North Korean children to their chests, emblazoned with "Death and Desperation" in red letters.
Signs and banners compared North Korea's gulag to World War II's Auschwitz death camp. "Stop feeding Kim Jong Il," said one sign, picturing the dictator with a cheesy grin. Another showed a satellite photograph of a prison camp.
While most of the demonstrators had planned their publicity, Ohio native Irma Chon was just glad to be there. Taking her teenage daughter and two kids from her church, she hitched a nine-hour Greyhound bus ride from Columbus and arrived at 6:30 that morning. She's been praying 10 years for suffering North Koreans. "They can't speak for themselves," she said of the 23 million trapped inside the communist state. "Those of us who know must speak for them."
North Korea has up to 200,000 prisoners in a system of political detention camps known as the kwan-li-so. Experts estimate as many as 4 million have died from starvation since 1995, most dying during a famine at the end of the decade. More than 40 percent of North Korean children are chronically malnourished, according to the UN World Food Program.
The event's organizers hope the public events will help prod House and Senate lawmakers to press ahead with legislation to pressure the North. The North Korea Freedom Act-which would link economic aid in diplomatic agreements to improved human-rights monitoring and would allow more defectors to come to the United States-was introduced in the House and Senate last November, while a separate House bill followed in March. One of the main organizers, Suzanne Scholte of the Defense Forum Foundation, a group that has since 1997 hosted North Korean defectors, said she was encouraged by the support of the Korean-American community.
The defectors themselves strongly backed the proposed U.S. legislation, but for North Korean women, Ms. Oh said, simple change would be enough: "Their dreams are very small. They just want to keep a family. They want to have meals with their children."