It’s no secret that North Korea is an enigmatic country, so it should come as no surprise to learn that even Kim Jong-un’s birthday is kept tightly under wraps. Today (January 8) is widely believed to be the North Korean leader’s 34th birthday, but there’s no point in wishing him many happy returns. We don’t actually know how old Kim is because the year he was born in has yet to be been confirmed and there have never been any official birthday celebrations, let alone a 21 gun, or missile, salute, to commemorate the day.
However, Kim Jong-un’s choice not to mark his birthday or disclose his age is not the sign of a man attempting to portray himself as noble and down to earth. It is the Supreme Leader, as he is called, indulging himself in a luxury not afforded to the estimated 30,000 stateless children born to North Korean women who live just across the border in China. These children are regarded as non-existent and have no papers confirming the day they were born.
Although news of detente, talks with South Korea and potential Olympic medals have clearly focused attention on the Korean peninsula, the children of North Korean women in China, most of whom have been trafficked out of the sealed state into illegal marriages, prostitution and slavery, live stateless on the fringes of society, unrecognised as citizens or even refugees.
Their children are born with no legal status, access to healthcare or education, and are the forgotten victims of the totalitarian regime. Unlike Kim Jong-un, who can pick and choose whether or not he wishes to celebrate his birthday, these children can only dream of a legal document confirming their birthdate.
Although all children born to at least one Chinese parent are technically eligible for citizenship, the reality is very different if one parent is from North Korea. China considers all North Koreans to be illegal economic migrants, systematically arresting and deporting them and their children, regardless of where they are born. Those sent back face detention, torture and even death by firing squad.
While the world may be watching the newest missile launch or catching up on the latest chapter of the Trump vs Kim Twitter saga, it is innocent children like Sung Min, 18, whose mother Yeon Mi was trafficked across the border in 1998, who suffer the true consequences. Although Sung Min is now living in the UK, he believes “the Chinese Government needs to give these children a chance to live their lives”. And he’s right. These children are the future, the next generation and a bridge between two worlds, but rather than being nurtured for any future roles they might play, they live under the radar in fear of being arrested and repatriated.
However, according to Yeon Mi, 49, the reason why these children are ignored is because “nobody knows about stateless children living in China”. She says that the international community is ignoring the issue by not doing anything. And, like her son, she’s right.
But there is a Catch-22 here. While the international community does nothing the answer is not simply to pressure China, as this could cause even worse humanitarian crises inside North Korea if the Chinese chose to seal the border completely. What the children need is not necessarily a huge international intervention, but to be offered a gift that the vast majority of us take for granted – the gift of recognition.
Part of the problem is not knowing how many children like Sung Min there are in China. While most estimates sit around the 30,000 mark, the Seoul based Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights puts the figure as high as 50,000. Tracking down these children, even unofficially, would give them a lifeline. Many of the children have been separated at a tender age from their mothers, who have been repatriated or died, and are simply too young to accurately remember their date of birth.
Birthdays are more than a celebration; they are a fundamental recognition of a person’s existence. Today is Kim Jong-un’s day and if the regime survives he will surely follow in the footsteps of his father, Kim Jong-Il, and grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, whose respective birthdays were marked annually with exuberant pomp and ceremony and outlandish military parades.
But for most of the forgotten children, who are unlikely to ever be as lucky as Sung Min, they will forever remain in limbo, not considered worthy enough of even having a nationality, let alone a birthday. Without offering a helping hand, we are leaving the most vulnerable children in the world to be exploited and ignored.