Meet Ellie Cha, the North Korean defector engaged on Parliament Hill – Nationwide


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Ellie Cha was 19 and simply beginning college when she left North Korea.

Her father, as soon as a revered vice-president in a North Korean mining firm, had simply misplaced his job. An aunt had fled to China and the household was now thought to be doubtlessly disloyal to the Kim regime. Her dad and mom believed there was no future for them in North Korea.

“One morning they only stated, ‘Within the subsequent few hours, we’re going to some place else.’”

It was the beginning of an arduous three-month journey throughout China and Southeast Asia to achieve asylum in South Korea. A lot of it was spent in jail cells.

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Cha spoke to World Information in Ottawa, the place she is presently collaborating in a program with the advocacy group HanVoice, which promotes human rights in North Korea. As a part of the six-month program, the 23 12 months previous has spoken at universities in Ontario and Quebec and labored as an intern within the workplace of Senator Yonah Martin.

She instructed World about her life in North Korea and her household’s escape.

Life in North Korea

Cha was born within the northern a part of North Korea, close to the border with China. Her city was comparatively well-off economically in comparison with different elements of the nation, she believes, and her father had job with a mining agency.

WATCH: North Koreans stay in two worlds: ideological and actual life, says defector Ellie Cha, and Westerners solely see the ideological face that individuals can overtly categorical.

As a toddler, Cha went to high school and discovered the identical types of issues a Canadian baby would possibly: studying, math, science – with a couple of variations. To start out with, her historical past lessons had been nearly utterly unsuitable.

She discovered that the Korean Battle was began by South Korea and america, for instance, as a result of it helped to advertise the North Korean authorities’s story that their management helped to guard their nation from invasion. “All the training was centered on making loyalty for the federal government,” she stated.

This image, taken on Sept. 23, 2010, exhibits a North Korean village seen from throughout the Yalu River on the foothills of the Baekdu Mountains as seen from northeast China’s Jilin province. The Cha household lived alongside the Chinese language border.

OLLI GEIBEL/AFP/Getty Photographs

Missing another info, she believed the historical past classes, she stated. However she didn’t consider the extra overt propaganda.

Every single day earlier than class, college students had been requested to take 10 minutes to compose a written reflection on some current information, just like the “heroes” who died after they bumped into burning buildings to save lots of a portrait of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung.

“I couldn’t perceive how individuals might sacrifice themselves for useless males. Not even for useless males, for his portrait,” she stated. “Each morning after I heard these related tales, I couldn’t perceive. I couldn’t sympathize.”

And after faculty, she and her household would attend group conferences designed to instill additional loyalty to the regime. All these wonderful images of parades on holidays or celebrations in honour of the leaders are the results of months and even years of pressured observe, she stated.

Mass celebrations like this one in Pyongyang for Kim Il Sung’s birthday take months of obligatory preparation.


Rising up, Cha was conscious of limitations positioned on her household’s success. North Korea’s authorities has a social system that ranks individuals primarily based on their perceived loyalty to the regime and doles out financial and social privilege accordingly. The rank can return a number of generations and could be affected by the actions of relations.

As a result of Cha’s household had family members in China, they had been already regarded with some suspicion. This meant that her father might solely be promoted so excessive at work, she stated.

However after her aunt disappeared and was noticed in South Korea, her father couldn’t maintain his job within the mining agency. He needed to take a lesser job elsewhere, with implications for what his youngsters might obtain.

“My dad and mom realized that for my household, there isn’t any future anymore, particularly for me and for my brother,” stated Cha.

So in 2012, they left.

Nearly no North Korean defectors cross straight from North Korea into South Korea. The border is just too well-guarded and it may be laborious for bizarre North Koreans to journey round inside their very own nation. So most individuals, particularly these like Cha’s household who stay close to the border, cross into China.

Nevertheless it’s laborious for them to remain there. As a result of China has a relationship with North Korea, fleeing North Koreans are sometimes caught by Chinese language authorities and despatched again dwelling to face horrible punishments, together with work camps or jail.

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As an alternative, North Koreans sometimes head by means of China into Southeast Asia to discover a South Korean embassy, the place they will declare asylum and apply for South Korean citizenship.

Graphic by Janet Cordahi

Cha’s household paid Chinese language brokers to smuggle them throughout the border, one after the other. Cha was reunited together with her father and 12-year-old brother in China, however their journey wasn’t ready for them once they arrived. So, Cha’s first evening of freedom was spent outdoor, on the facet of a mountain.

After two days of chilly rain on the mountain, their Chinese language contact arrived and took the household to satisfy their mom, then they spent six days driving south by means of China by bus, ultimately reaching Vietnam.

“Throughout that point it was very scary for us, as a result of we knew that if we had been caught by Chinese language authorities, they’d ship us to North Korea,” she stated. “And robust punishment would await us in North Korea.”

WATCH: North Korean defector Ellie Cha describes the second she realized that Vietnamese authorities had been sending her household again to China.

They meant to go to the South Korean embassy in Hanoi, however had been arrested by the Vietnamese police earlier than they may get there. They spent three weeks in Vietnamese jail cells. After a lot confusion, they had been despatched again to the Chinese language border.

Cha was afraid.

“I grabbed a police officer’s hand and I stated, ‘Please. Take us to Laos.’ He checked out me with very apologetic eyes and simply stated, ‘Sorry for that. We’re taking you to China.’”

Her father’s face went white on the information, she stated. “He collapsed onto his knees and stated, ‘Please, please, for the youngsters, for the kids.’”

Cha’s father had at all times been a hero to her, she stated, and revered by others. To observe him beg was heartbreaking. “Actually, I felt sick in my coronary heart after I noticed my dad.”

Her father instructed her to go on alone if she needed to.

WATCH: North Korean defector Ellie Cha says she felt heartsick watching her father beg police to not ship her household to China throughout their escape from North Korea.

“I wasn’t scared to undergo myself,” she stated. “I heard some tales about how individuals undergo in North Korea once we go to a political jail camp. So after I imagined my dad and mom’ life, my brother’s life, it was far more struggling than simply myself. I might resolve to go on my own, however what about my dad and mom and my brother?”

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They had been ultimately launched again into China, and tried once more. They went by means of this 5 instances earlier than making an attempt a distinct route by means of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, the place they lastly ended up in a refugee camp and had been capable of contact the South Korean authorities.

The household had travelled hundreds of kilometres by means of China and Southeast Asia to seek out asylum, nevertheless it was a troublesome journey. “At some point my brother stated, ‘I really feel like I travelled East Asian jails.’”

Life in Seoul

Life in South Korea wasn’t as simple as they hoped.

“Folks say that whenever you arrive in South Korea, perhaps it will likely be a cheerful ending. Even in South Korea, our journey didn’t finish. Perhaps the journey for freedom, not the journey for life as a household.”

Her father had problem discovering work as an older man, her mom sank into melancholy and Ellie and her brother had issues becoming into their new lives.

“Even in South Korea, we have now to beat numerous challenges,” she stated. “Such discrimination, such bias, and to adapt to a very totally different society, social system.”

WATCH: North Korean defector Ellie Cha says she misses her pals and her hometown, and is grateful her father introduced alongside images of her childhood.

Her brother obtained into fights in highschool as a result of his North Korean accent recognized him as an outsider, she stated.

And when she wished to go to college – South Korea has affirmative-action applications for defectors – certainly one of her counsellors didn’t need her there.

“After I stated I utilized to Korea College, he stated, ‘How can North Korean college students go there? It’s not simple for South Korean college students,” she recalled. “How will you examine there? All the college students are super-smart.”

However Cha wished to check. “I simply stated, ‘Why? How are you aware about me? We simply met now, simply three minutes in the past. You’re a trainer. As a trainer, is it proper to guage college students by their social background?’”

It took three years for the household to settle in.

Defector shares his story of escaping North Korea

As a journalism pupil in Seoul, she obtained to know one other pupil who had visited Canada with HanVoice and took the chance to return too. She wished to study, to see the world, and to assist individuals perceive about North Korea to assist individuals again dwelling.

She’s visited a number of college campuses to inform her story, she stated. “Particularly this summer time, there are a lot of points with nuclear [testing] and dictatorships. So individuals suppose that North Korea equals nuclear dictatorship,” she stated. She hopes to get Canadians to consider North Korea’s individuals too. “Everytime you hear about nuclear, you hear about Kim Jong Un, please keep in mind the individuals’s lives, individuals nonetheless residing beneath the repressive society.”

WATCH: North Korean defector Ellie Cha says she needs Canadians to know that North Korea is greater than only a nuclear dictatorship, it’s a rustic of tens of millions of individuals.

She believes Canadians and Westerners confuse North Korea’s public face – with its robotic propaganda and seemingly fanatical devotion to Kim Jong Un – with what individuals actually suppose.

“I feel there are two worlds: the ideological world and our actuality world. With a view to stay in North Korea, we have now to take part within the ideological world and we have now to fake that we have now loyalty for the regime,” she stated.

However as quickly as they get again dwelling, most individuals neglect in regards to the authorities. It’s too harmful for North Koreans to share inside lives with anybody – together with the media – so the world will get a skewed image [of] what they actually suppose, she stated.

“Folks ask me, ‘Do you like Kim Jong Un?’ Nevertheless it’s simply within the ideological world. It’s not our actuality world.”

© 2017 World Information, a division of Corus Leisure Inc.

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