President Bush met with six-year old Han-Mi Kim and her family on April 28 in the Oval Office. In 2002, the family's bold attempt to escape North Korea had drawn international attention.
When the family of five tried to run into the Japanese Consulate in Shenyang City, China, the Chinese police forcefully dragged two women and a child out of the consulate. The incident caused a diplomatic conflict between China and Japan and led to media coverage of the family's plight. This is their story.
The Family of a Political Prisoner Suffers Too
In 1994, Kim II Sung passed away, and his son Kim Jong II became the leader of North Korea. Under his rule, people in North Korea suffered even worse. According to the book Rogue Regime: Kim Jong II and the Looming Threat of North Korea, written by Jasper Becker, the deadly famine of 1995 claimed roughly three million people, about fifteen percent of North Korea's people.
One day in 1995, Han-Mi Kim's grandfather said to his friends, "Kim Jong II's rule is not as good as Kim II Sung's rule." One of them reported him to the authorities who imprisoned him in a labor camp as a political prisoner. The family never heard anything about him again. Han-Mi's mother Lee Sun-hee said, "He was more than likely put to death."
People who live in North Korea are very sensitive to the "political prisoner" label. Han-Mi's grandmother Chung Kyong-suk realized that the arrest of her husband meant that her life would be at risk if she stayed in North Korea, so she and her younger son Kim Gwi-Ok fled the country immediately. Lee Sun-hee said that because of her grandfather's imprisonment, the lives of the whole family would be in danger if they stayed in North Korea.
At that time, Han-Mi's parents Kim Kwan-chul and Lee Sun-hee were living separately with their grandparents. Still, they were under strict surveillance because the grandfather had been a political prisoner. Lee Sun-hee said that if they ate rice rather than weeds like most other North Koreans, they would be asked where their rice came from. They would be asked about their movements and who they associated with. If they left home, they would have to report it to the police.
In addition, under the communist system, anyone could report on others, even on their own family members, for a small benefit. Lee Sun-hee told reporters that she did not dare to tell her mother before she fled the country because she was afraid that her mother might report her.
No Choice but to Defect
Under such strict monitoring, any small incident could cost their lives. In 1999, Han-Mi's parents started their defection with the help of a relative. At that time, Han-Mi's mother Lee Sun-hee was five months pregnant. Lee Sun-hee said that although they knew defection was very dangerous, they did not have any other choice; such a family could not live in North Korea. Going to China meant taking the risk of being caught and sent back; therefore their only hope was to flee to South Korea.
However, while they were in China looking for opportunities to go to South Korea, Han-Mi's family was captured by the Chinese police and repatriated to North Korea. They were jailed in a detention center in North Korea, where one of their acquaintances reported that they had contacted South Koreans in China, which was a crime in North Korea that would bring a death penalty.
One day Kim Kwan-chul overheard a conversation among the guards that he would be executed in several days. He went on a hunger strike that put him in critical condition. Unwilling to be held responsible for his death before the execution, detention center authorities sent him to Pyongyang Hospital.
At the hospital, Kim Kwan-chul escaped through a narrow opening in a restroom wall, and fled to the mountains. He survived by eating weeds. While in the mountains, he met an elderly lady who grew corn and fed him. Seven days later, he went back home and met Han-Mi and her mother. (They had been released because Han-Mi was only one-year old). Kim Kwan-chul dug a hole under his home and hid there while preparing for their next escape.
In order to avoid any more attention, Kim Kwan-chul and his wife left their daughter at home for their second escape. After they arrived in China, Mr. Mun Guk-hwan, a North Korean human rights activist, suggested they take their child with them to South Korea; the child could not survive in North Korea. However, the couple could not re-enter North Korea again. In the meantime, Han-Mi's uncle Kim Gwi-Ok had been detained by the Chinese and repatriated to North Korea. Luckily, Kim Gwi-Ok escaped again and brought Han-Mi with him.
The Dash for Freedom
Since March 13, 2002, the family had wanted to go to the South Korean Embassy in Beijing. They discovered that there were four or five security check points between Yanbian and Beijing, so they decided to go to Shanyeng City. When they arrived, they monitored both the South Korean and American consulates and found both of them to be securely guarded by the Chinese. They noticed the Japanese Consulate nearby had gates that were half open every day. Besides, there were only two armed Chinese police that possibly could be deceived or distracted.
On May 8, 2002, the couple, their daughter, Kim Kwan-chul's mother Chung Kyong-suk, and brother Kim Gwi-Ok decided to enter the Japanese Consulate. Without speaking to the guards, they rushed through the gates into the Consulate. The two men ran through the gates, but the women and child just managed to get through the gate when the Chinese police officers dragged them out of the consulate building.
According to the Singapore newspaper Lianhezaobao, the video record showed the two Korean men rushing through the steel gate and going straight into the Japanese Consulate. The two women and child followed after them and had already entered the Consulate, but the Chinese police followed behind them, caught one lady and forcibly dragged her out. The little girl, who was on her mother's back, fell to the ground. The women screamed out and drew a lot of public attention. Finally, all five North Koreans were taken away by the police.
Diplomacy Battle Between China and Japan
According to the Voice of America report, in the days that ensued, TV programs in Japan repeatedly broadcast the video showing armed Chinese police breaking into the Japanese Consulate in Shanyang and forcibly abducting the Han-Mi family. This aroused anger and a strong protest from the Japanese people and government officials.
Japanese Minister of State and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said the videotape showed the five North Koreans had all entered the Consulate but were taken away by the Chinese police. China had invaded Japan's Consulate, which violated the Vienna Convention. Japan demanded that China hand over the five North Koreans.
According to the Vienna Convention, a foreign embassy and consulate is a foreign possession, and host country personnel are not allowed to invade foreign possessions without permission. China denied the accusation of entering the Japanese Consulate without permission. Kong Quan, the spokesperson of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that unidentified people broke into the Japanese Consulate in Shanyang from the front gate. He said that the Chinese police went into the consulate and removed the invaders after receiving the consent of a vice-consul in the Japanese Consulate.
Kong Quan said the Japanese Consulate staff had expressed gratitude to the Chinese police officers after the event. He also said that according to the Vienna Convention on consular relations, China has the responsibility to take necessary action to ensure the safety of foreign consulates.
However, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi said in Tokyo that she could not accept the explanation from China. Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro also objected to China's action and response and ordered the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to send high level officials to Beijing to negotiate.
Free at Last and Devoted to Human Rights
Under intense international pressure, the Kim Han-Mi family was released after fifteen days in detention. They arrived in South Korea via the Philippines on May 23, 2002.
In order to protect human rights and all North Koreans, the entire Kim Han-Mi family is actively involved in North Korean human rights efforts. On April 28, 2006, the last day of activities of "North Korean human rights week" in the United States, President George W. Bush met with the Kim Han-Mi family, who were participating in the activity.