UK & World News

  • 8 March 2014, 17:12

North Korean Women Reveal Emotional Struggle

In a television studio in a suburb of the South Korean capital, Seoul, an unusual show is being filmed.

Sky News has been given rare behind-the-scenes access to a primetime TV programme called Now On My Way To Meet You.

It is part chat show, part talent contest, and it is curious because the contestants are all female defectors from North Korea.

Nearly 70% of people to escape North Korea are female. Their gender increases their chances of successfully completing the long journey, one which all defectors take, through China, southeast Asia and eventually to South Korea.

Women are more likely to make it, first because many are not tied into a job in North Korea from which they will be missed, but also because they are more likely to pick up underground work as they travel through China - often, tragically, in prostitution or forced labour.

In the make-up room, we are introduced to the North Korean contestants preparing for their appearance on the TV show.

There is hum of excitement. The women, most of whom are in their twenties, compare their scripts and take "selfies" of each other.

Each of them now has a new life in South Korea. They have taken advantage of a pledge by the government in Seoul to provide passports, housing and rehabilitation to all North Korean defectors.

The TV show is another avenue through which they can put their past behind them, but we quickly discover it takes very little to bring it all back.

One of the contestants is Lee SoonShil. She was once a nurse in the North Korean military. We meet her in the make-up room where she begins by explaining how hard it was to escape.

"I crossed over to China nine times between 1997 and 2007," she says. "I was caught every time. The last time I crossed over was when my baby was two."

Mrs Lee then begins to cry. She and her baby daughter were separated and sold on their escape across the border to China.

Mrs Lee was forced into farm labour and other work which she chooses not to elaborate on. Tragically, she has no idea where her daughter went. It is hard to listen to.

"She's my child, I gave birth to her," Mrs Lee says, crying.

"I don't know where she is or if she is dead or alive. My life is dominated by my loss for her. I am dying to see her. I want to find her."

On the studio floor, the defectors have gathered on one side of the set. On the other side are three South Korean celebrities who draw in the viewers.

Kim Young Chul is a well-known South Korean comedian and a regular contributor to the show.

He explains the programme allows the North Koreans the chance to talk about their past lives. But he says it is an education for the South Korean viewers.

"I didn't know much about North Korea to be honest, you know. I read some newspapers and books, that's all I had, but when I worked with them I learnt lots of North Korean things," he says.

"Sometimes when I work with the defectors, I feel so sad and I cry several times when I hear about their really sad stories."

We watch the filming of the show. There is a mixture of humour and tears. Highbrow talk of politics is mixed with the difficulties of how to find a husband in South Korea.

There is singing, dancing and even a chance for the women to laugh at the cruel regime they have escaped. One of the women impersonates the stern delivery of a North Korean newsreader.

Mrs Lee has wiped away her tears from the make-up room and we watch as she laughs on set with the others. 

"I find consolation by the fact that my daughter is in China," she said.

"At least she wouldn't starve to death like she would if she had lived in the DPRK (North Korea). If I'd left her in DPRK, I would have gone crazy with the thought she would starve to death."

Behind Mrs Lee's make-up and on-set laughter, she is clearly extremely fragile.

Her motivation to talk to us and to appear on the TV show seems to be simple: it is that sliver of hope that her daughter, who would now be eight, might just be watching somewhere and might somehow recognise the mother she lost.

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