Like many North Koreans, Lee Geum-suk wants to escape from her homeland. And she has more reason than most of her fellow countrymen.
Lee, who is in her late 20s, had just left school when she was told that the Workers’ Party required that she marry a man who had previously worked as a nuclear research technician. Before her wedding day, she knew nothing else about her future husband and, as is the case in North Korea, had no choice in the matter.
Immediately after the wedding, she realised she had been provided as a form of reward to the man.
He was like a young child, she told This Week in Asia in a message relayed through The Centre for Liberty and Reunification, a group of human rights campaigners that includes North Korean defectors who have been able to reach South Korea.
WATCH: The refugee life of a North Korean defector in Hong Kong
Lee’s husband had the mind of a boy, constantly craved food, she said, was sexually dysfunctional and had suffered some sort of mental problem that had diminished his memory. He also became violent towards his wife.
“We have heard of many cases of women forced into marriages with men who were put to work on the North’s nuclear programmes becoming the victims of domestic violence,” said Lee Ae-ran (above), president of the NGO.
Other women described life with these men as “torture” because the men they had been forced to marry “were monsters, not human beings”.
“We hear that many nuclear scientists in the North die or become disabled before the age of 40 as a result of their exposure to radiation,” she added.
Before Lee Ae-ran defected, one of her close friends was ordered to attend North Korea’s National Defence University in Kanggye, Jagang province. He had wanted to attend a different university but his skills in the sciences and mathematics marked him out.
“At this time, in the 1980s, North Korea was concentrating a lot of its effort on nuclear technology,” Lee said, adding that the safety of the technicians was not a high priority.
“Many nuclear workers were exposed to radiation and died prematurely,” she said. “Some died before they reached the age of 40. That is why students did not want to go to the National Defence University, but if they refused then the authorities would have had doubts about their ‘ideological zeal’, and that would have had extremely adverse consequences for their careers and futures.”
Lee Ae-ran said that despite her inquiries, she had been unable to locate her former school friend.
Other women have told Lee Ae-ran of their relatives’ experiences at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, where they had to work for three hours a day and wore white gowns and full-face breathing apparatus.
“At first, 100 healthy young men who graduated from Bungang Physics University were sent there, but they died one by one,” she said. “Eventually, only 10 people were still alive, but they all developed strange diseases and became mentally handicapped,” she said.
Some of the men could no longer walk, some developed large growths on their hips and around their anuses. Another woman reported that her husband lost all his teeth before he was 30.
After just six months, Lee Geum-suk was unable to tolerate her husband’s behaviour any longer and filed for divorce. As a punishment, she was sent to a labour camp and now is barely surviving. Her father managed to reach South Korea and vowed to help her escape. And then, he says, he will have his daughter reveal the full extent of her horrific experiences.
“The world knows that North Korea is threatening the world with its nuclear weapons programmes, but nothing is known about the way Pyongyang treats its own scientists,” Lee Ae-ran said. “These are inhumane violations of their human rights, as well as those of the women who are forced to marry these men.” ■