A stateless North Korean teenager who just wants to study

Posted on : 2015-09-25 13:43 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Without her parents or birth documentation, S. Korean government refusing teenager citizenship she needs to make a life
 Sep. 24. (by Kim Tae-hyeong
Sep. 24. (by Kim Tae-hyeong

Fifteen-year-old “Eun-ju” was sitting in a rented apartment in Seoul’s Nowon District on Sept. 24 when she explained her dream to go to school. It embarrasses her to be the only one among youths her age who doesn’t put on a school uniform, she explained. Her grandmother, 70-year-old “Park Hyeon-sun,” winced in sympathy as she looked on.

Eun-ju is at an age when she should be deep in her studies. Instead, she can‘t attend school at all. She can’t set up a bank account or book tickets online for pop concerts either. If she gets sick, she has to bear with it - a trip to the hospital is out of the question. Eun-ju is stateless, living in South Korea as an illegal alien.

The teenager lives alone with her grandmother, a refugee from North Korea. Park left the country for China in 2000 following six daughters who had made the exodus before her. Eun-ju is the daughter of the eldest of them, who married an ethnically Korean Chinese man. The mother went missing while attempting the journey to South Korea with two younger siblings in 2006; her whereabouts remain unknown. The father died in an accident the following year.

Left raising her young granddaughter in China, Park faced the additional ordeal of having two other daughters either go missing or be taken back to North Korea. It was after learning of the cancer diagnosis of her youngest daughter - who had successfully made it to South Korea - that the grandmother decided to travel there herself in 2012. She left Eun-ju with others as she made the difficult journey, which took her through Laos and Thailand.

“She was just a tiny child when I left,” Park recalled. “I cried all the way to South Korea.”

It was in July 2014 that Park brought Eun-ju over. Three million won (US$2,510) of the four million won (US$3,350) settlement payment she received from the Hanawon resettlement and education center for North Korean refugees went to paying the broker’s fees. Now a healthy teenager, the girl was smuggled into the country deep in a dark boat bottom. After a weeklong journey, the two were reunited in a tight embrace.

“I tried to smile as brightly as I could so that I wouldn’t cry,” recalled Eun-ju. Beaming side-by-side with her grandmother, Eun-ju thought for sure she’d have a chance to live.

Today, however, Eun-ju effectively doesn’t exist anywhere in South Korea. She is stateless - considered neither a North Korean refugee nor a Chinese national. Her grandmother went to the local district office and police station - and even to the Office of Immigration - to help her acquire South Korean citizenship.

They all told her the same thing: Current law prevents someone from acquiring citizenship when both parents are dead or missing and a grandparent is the only relation.

“I even had a DNA test done to prove she was my granddaughter. It was no use,” Park recalled.

Recently, Eun-ju caught a severe cold that left her with a fever and throat sore enough to prevent her speaking clearly. The pharmacist told her she had to go to the hospital. But without a valid resident registration, her only choice was to suffer through it.

“I was also sick enough last spring that I was stuck in bed for three weeks straight, and I just had to spend it at home,” she remembered.

Eun-ju has many dreams for the future. She’d like to become a flight attendant, or perhaps an actress. One thing she definitely wants is to go to school. Thanks to the efforts of the Seoul North Han Center, she does study at an alternative school. But she is not eligible even to sit for a qualification examination.

“I envy the other kids, and I feel ashamed of myself,” she said. In contrast with the young girl’s calm and composure, Park was tearing up as she listened on.

“I just want to teach Eun-ju well and make sure she lives a happy life,” she said.

Jang Bok-hee, a professor of law at Sun Moon University, said the situation is one that demands institutional improvements.

“There could be many cases like this where stateless children are taken in by grandparents or other relatives after their North Korean refugee parents die or go missing,” Jang said.

For now, Eun-ju is preparing to celebrate her second Chuseok holiday in South Korea. She has no way of knowing if she will ever be recognized as a citizen, but the expressions on her and her grandmother’s faces were not merely ones of gloom.

“I didn’t like the big holidays when I was in China because I was worried what the owner of the house would think,” said a smiling Eun-ju. “Now I’m just really happy to be with my grandmother.”

“I spent the holidays crying by myself without Eun-ju here,” said Park as she looked at her granddaughter. “I believe everything is going to work out.”

By Ko Han-sol, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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