North Korea is one of the world’s most repressive and reclusive countries — a veritable black box. For most, the only view in is through the few who make it out.
Escaping is a daunting task filled with dangers and hardships that don’t stop at the border. Grace Jo, a North Korean defector who now lives in Washington, D.C., shared her incredible story with The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Life On The Inside:
“North Korea is very cruel, very sad, and very dark,” Grace said, recalling her days there. “It is a world completely without hope.”
Born in 1991 in Hamgyeong Province, Grace lived in the mountains with her mother, father, two older sisters, younger brother and grandmother. She lost more than half of her family before she left North Korea for good.
Her childhood was defined by the Arduous March, a famine which killed hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, between 1994 and 1998. She also experienced the ruthlessness of the Kim Jong-Il regime firsthand.
“We were always hungry and cold,” Grace explained, “My mother, father, and siblings were always out searching for food.”
As finding food wasn’t easy, Grace nearly starved to death as a child. “I went 10 days without any food. We could only drink cold water from the river,” she said. Had it not been for the generosity of a neighbor, Grace would not have survived.
To fight off starvation, Grace’s mother and father made several food runs to China. The first two times were successful, but everything went wrong during a third trip, when they were caught by border police.
Her mother, who was pregnant at the time, was tortured in prison, an experience that crippled her permanently. Grace’s father died during his incarceration.
The government told Grace’s mother, Song Hwa Han, that her husband was shot and killed when he tried to escape from a prison train. The truth, they later found out, is that the soldiers beat him and tortured him until he could no longer stand and denied him food and water until he died.
The news of her husband’s tragic death shocked Grace’s mother, causing her to deliver her baby prematurely.
To care for the family, Grace’s oldest sister traveled to China to find food, but she disappeared. After recovering, Grace’s mother left Grace, her older sister Jinhye Jo, her younger brother and her new baby brother in the care of their grandmother and set out to look for her daughter in China. Grace’s oldest sister was never found. Reports indicate that she was sold into sexual slavery.
“We did our best to take care of our new baby brother while our mother was gone, but we were unable to save him. He died after only two months,” Grace explained.
Short on food, Grace and her family lived off grass and water from the river nearby. Her grandmother fell ill after toxic chemicals in the grass got into her bloodstream by way of a cut on her arm. There was no medicine available to cure her.
“My grandmother grew weaker and weaker. She only had one final wish. She wanted to eat a baked potato, but we weren’t able to do that for her,” Grace explained.
After her mother returned, soldiers told her that the family had to leave the village. They were branded anti-state traitors and told that if they did not leave, the soldiers would burn their house down. They were instructed to relocate to another city. Grace’s mother begged the soldiers to let them stay, telling them that they had no food, water, clothing, or shoes and that the children would not survive the trip, but the soldiers were unmoved.
Grace’s mother decided that it was time for her and what was left of her family to leave.
Grace’s mother set out with Grace and her older sister in 1998. Unable to carry her five-year-old son, she decided to leave him with some of their neighbors. She promised that she would send someone for him in a few days. Famished and unable to feed the young boy, the family put him out. He was last seen crying for his mother in a field. He died of starvation before anyone could come for him.
Grace crossed the Tumen River with her mother and sister and entered into China on her seventh birthday.
After she arrived in China, weak and malnourished Grace’s eyes were opened to the world beyond her country’s borders. She saw a family with a pet dog that ate better than she ever had. “Even the animals here live better than we do,” Grace recalled thinking at the time. “Our country has nothing. No food. No hope.”
Grace, her older sister, and her mother lived in China intermittently for 10 years. They were always on the run, hiding from the Chinese police. They also had to evade North Korean agents who had been dispatched to hunt down their family. They weren’t able to avoid capture; all three were repatriated multiple times.
After being caught and repatriated in 2001, young Grace spent many months in a North Korean prison facility.
“From this moment on, you are no longer human beings, you will be treated like animals,” the North Korean soldiers barked. “The soldiers liked to kick and punch people. They liked to practice boxing on the prisoners,” Grace explained.
“We could not look them in the eye. We had to stare at their feet. If we moved or looked up, they would punish all of us,” she said.
North Korean prisons are notoriously brutal, with some previously imprisoned defectors reporting seeing guards beat people mercilessly. Some said that the soldiers would sometimes attack pregnant women, kicking them in their stomachs repeatedly.
In this harsh and unforgiving environment, Grace was always terrified that she would never see her family again. Grace was eventually set free. Afterwards, she made her way back to China, where she was reunited with her mother and sister.
After returning to China, Grace and her family met Korean-American missionary Pastor Phillip Buck, who helped take care of them.
They were caught again in 2005, and Grace spent a year in a Chinese prison.
In 2006, the Chinese turned her and her mother and sister over to the North Koreans. They were held in the National Security Agency, where they were interrogated and tortured.
The North Koreans found out that they were Christian and knew Christian missionaries — crimes punishable by death in North Korea. To spare them, Buck paid $10,000 to North Korean security officers. The family was charged with lesser crimes and set free on the condition that they remain in North Korea.
They immediately fled the country to China, where they quickly applied for United Nations’ refugee status.
While waiting for approval, Grace and her family stayed in an apartment with around 20 other defectors in Beijing. There was a constant lingering fear among the residents that they would be sent back. “Some people couldn’t take the pressure of waiting to find out if they would be granted freedom. Some people became really depressed. Others tried to commit suicide,” Grace explained, “We couldn’t leave the house. Even though we had a kind of protected status, there was always the possibility that the Chinese police would grab us and send us back to North Korea.”
After receiving refugee status, Grace, Jinhye, and their mother came to the U.S. in 2008. Grace became a U.S. citizen in 2013.
Adjusting To Life Beyond North Korea:
For most people, adapting to life in a foreign country is a challenge. For North Korean defectors, those challenges are much more imposing.
Take those who defect to South Korea, for example. “For them, it’s kind of like waking up from a time machine and finding yourself in the future,” Sokeel Park, director of Research and Strategy for Liberty in North Korea, an international non-governmental organization that works with North Korean defectors, told TheDCNF.
North Korea and South Korea started off on similar footing. Unlike North Korea, the South embraced globalization, democratization, and massive economic development. The North Korean system intentionally denied these changes. Where South Korea is one of the most wired countries in the world today, most North Koreans have never used a computer.
North Korean defectors sometimes struggle with poverty, language barriers, social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and suicidal thoughts, criminality, drug abuse, a lack of education and employable skills, and discrimination, Park explained.
North Koreans living in South Korea are reportedly three to four times more likely to end up prison than their local counterparts. “Under the burden of livelihood difficulties and homesickness, more defectors tend to get involved in crimes with the number of defector prisoners on the rise,” South Korean Rep. Kang Chang-il reported in late September.
Drug abuse is a noteworthy problem. Park noted that some North Korean defectors abuse drugs because that cultural norm exists in North Korea. Others use narcotics as a response to trauma, and for some other defectors, drug abuse is a type of self-medication.
“It is not uncommon for defectors to have suffered physical abuse in North Korea. Their bodies are weak and unsuitable for hard labor, but because they do not have the education and skills needed to find better jobs, they can only do manual labor. To block out the pain or to stay awake, they will sometimes use illegal drugs,” Grace explained.
For many North Koreans, freedom, while cherished, is sometimes bitter-sweet. The transition from a broken kingdom to the modern world is often overwhelming. “It’s hard, but we press on because we have to,” Grace noted.
Grace is a student at a local community college, where she studies business management. She is overcoming all the obstacles that were placed before her and pursuing her ambitions courageously.
Becoming Agents For Change:
Most North Korean defectors despise the Kim regime for the tragedies inflicted upon them and their families, and pray for change in their former homeland.
“I know who Adolf Hitler is. I know the horrible things he did, but if I had to choose between him and the Kim family, I would pick him. I hate them,” Justin Seo, a North Korean defector living in New York, told TheDCNF, “You don’t know how terrible these people are.”
“I thought things might get better when Kim Jong Un took power, but since then, things in North Korea have only gotten worse,” Grace said. “The Kim family simply cannot stay. It is dragging the country and its people into darkness.”
There are around 30,000 defectors living in South Korea and about 200 in the U.S. Many North Korean defectors have become important agents for change in North Korea.
“The North Korean people cannot change North Korea by themselves. They need help,” Grace told TheDCNF. Jinhye and Grace are the president and vice president, respectively, of NKinUSA, one of many organizations dedicated to helping North Korean defectors and encouraging change in Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea.
Defectors regularly serve as activists. For example, defectors help disseminate outside information into North Korea and play a major role in projects like the Human Rights Foundation’s Flash Drives for Freedom program, which deploys flash drives loaded with material, such as South Korean television shows and documentaries, into North Korea.
“The North Korean government lies to its people. It tells them that South Korea is poor, so poor that the North has to support them. It says that South Korea will kill them if they try to go there. The U.S. is presented as the country’s biggest enemy, and China is supposedly poverty-stricken and overflowing with homeless people,” Grace pointed out. “Defectors who make it out can help spread the word that the world is not as the Kim family says it is.”
Grace has taken part in U.N. events, worked with think tanks and international organizations, and even testified before Congress. She will release a book about her experiences in 2017.
Beyond activists, average North Korean defectors are making a difference in North Korea simply by reaching out to family and friends still inside. Defectors in South Korea often send money back to family in North Korea, said Park. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being sent into North Korea, breathing new life into the country’s black markets and sparking underground capitalism. Through covert phone calls, they also help to inform North Korean people about the outside world.
There is still more that needs to be done.
“The biggest problem now is China. Removing the 38th Parallel [the border between North and South Korea] will require China, the U.S., and South Korea to work together. China needs to stop sending people back. Thousands of people are trying to get out of North Korea, but the Chinese are standing in their way,” said Grace. “Opening the gates will leave Kim Jong Un without a people to oppress and the North Korean government, which has negatively affected so many people, will fall.”
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