Seoul (AsiaNews) - Fr Domingo Cho, 40, is a Dominican from Seoul. A priest for 12 years, he has carried out his pastoral ministry among North Korean refugees seeking asylum in the South, helping them through the hard task of integrating in a society that, despite the (almost) identical language, is as alien and distant as can be.
One of his most important and saddest tasks is to rescue North Korean women sold in China as brides or sex slaves, something that Pope Francis referred to in his 2015 Message for Peace.
In the latter, the Holy father call it a global scourge in which people are "forced into prostitution, many of whom [. . .] minors, as well as male and female sex slaves," with some "women forced into marriage" and others "sold for arranged marriages" (n. 3).
According to studies by some non-governmental organisations, at least 90 per cent of all women fleeing North Korea's dictatorship become victims of human trafficking, sometimes as prostitutes, often as bride-slaves to Chinese husbands.
The problem is that in the Chinese countryside, the number of women is very low because of the country's one-child policy and selective abortions, Fr Cho explained. In fact, in some areas in north-eastern China, the ratio between young men and women is 14 to 1. This makes women trafficking very profitable.
After China decided to send back all North Koreans refugees in 2007, fugitives from North Korea have become easy prey to blackmail. Some women go so far as to become virtual slaves just to avoid being sent back.
"Usually a woman is sold for US$ 2,000," Fr Cho said. In most cases they live as slaves: making babies, cleaning the house, and handing over their wages to the husband."
In one of the many stories that he is familiar with, one woman was sold to five men, who took turns using her.
"We try to free them," he said, through a network of friends and mediators. "We raise funds in South Korea, and "buy" them from their owners, before bring them to the South."
The clergyman knows of some women who were repatriated to North Korea because they tried to rebel against their owners. "Once home, they are executed, or forced into hard labour. And if they are pregnant by their Chinese husbands, they are forced to abort to save the purity of the (North) Korean race."
When women come to the South, they are first questioned by South Korean intelligence to determine whether they are spies or genuine refugees. Then they are placed in resettlement centres, to introduce them to the South Korean society.
"I help them break out of their shell, and offer them assistance in meeting their needs. But loneliness is their main problem. They have no one, and they are in a completely alien environment, in a world where they know no one. They badly need to talk to someone and be comforted." And "over time, some express a desire to become Christian," the priest added.
Some North Korean women may have married a Chinese Catholic, who treated well and humanely. For this, they are grateful towards their husbands and want to experience the faith that allowed them to live with dignity.
In some cases, the Chinese husband and their children arrive in Seoul, the priest explained. However, more often than not, the women come alone after years in slavery.
"Even these are often interested to know the Catholic faith and other religions (like Protestantism and Buddhism)," Fr Cho explained. However, the real reason seems to be their need for help, and the urgency to integrate."
For Fr Cho, the integration challenges refugees face are compounded by the problem of their acceptance by South Koreans. "South Koreans do not accept them willingly and so North Koreans do not feel at home. We really need to change our hearts."
"The Church's task is to change people's hearts and welcome people, and this not for political reasons. We should get rid of the ideological blinkers with which we in the south see North Koreans."
"Two Koreas have existed for 60 years," he said in concluding. "We have a history of competition, war and conflict. Both sides of the peninsula preserve a confrontational mind-set. My generation, for example, was educated in anti-communism. However, after some studies I came to realise that North Koreans were part of the same people; that we come from the same culture. That is why I decided to work for Korean reconciliation." (BC)