“In a short time, al­most all my fam­ily mem­bers died or dis­ap­peared.” GRACE JO, North Korean de­fec­tor

US should ac­cept more N. Korean refugees, says Grace Jo

New Straits Times - - World -

“I

AM good at es­cap­ing,” says Grace Jo, 25, a slen­der woman who man­aged to flee North Korea and its au­thor­i­tar­ian regime not once, but three times, though most of her fam­ily mem­bers were not so lucky.

Even as the reclu­sive Asian na­tion steps up its mil­i­tary provo­ca­tions, mil­lions of its peo­ple strug­gle to get enough to eat.

But, those like Jo who find their way out of the coun­try of­ten find them­selves sent back once au­thor­i­ties in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries dis­cov­ered them.

Such was Jo’s fate the first time she fled North Korea when she was about 7 years old.

“We walked for three nights and four days,” she re­calls.

“We walked on un­paved roads and crossed many moun­tains un­til we reached the Tu­men River”, which sep­a­rates North Korea from China.

Only her mother and her sis­ter Jin-hye, 10 at the time, made the trip with her.

A few months ear­lier, her fa­ther had been ar­rested and beaten by au­thor­i­ties for cross­ing the bor­der to buy a bag of rice. He died on the train tak­ing him to prison.

Her grand­mother and two younger broth­ers died of hunger, and her el­dest sis­ter had gone to find food and never re­turned.

“In a short time, al­most all my fam­ily mem­bers died or dis­ap­peared,”

Jo said on the side­lines of the Oslo Free­dom Fo­rum this week, an an­nual gath­er­ing of hu­man rights ac­tivists held in the Nor­we­gian cap­i­tal. At the time, the sec­ond half of the 1990s, North Korea was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a famine that left hun­dreds of thou­sands dead.

Liv­ing in the north­east­ern Hamg yong prov­ince, Jo’s fam­ily had been try­ing to sur­vive on wild fruit, crick­ets and tree bark.

She said once, she and her lit­tle brother had noth­ing to eat for 10 days.

“One day, my grand­mother found six new­born mice un­der some stones.

“With my mother, they boiled these small mice in a stone pot.”

She said she was 5½ years old and her jet black hair had turned yel­low from mal­nu­tri­tion.

But, cross­ing the bor­der did not put an end to their prob­lems.

In China, Py­ongyang’s main ally, her fam­ily’s three sur­vivors were forced to go un­der­ground for fear of be­ing sent back to North Korea. Even­tu­ally, they were caught and jailed, and sent back home.

They man­aged to flee once again af­ter Jo’s mother bribed a bor­der guard, but once again, they were caught and re­turned.

In 2006, she made her third and fi­nal es­cape, this time thanks to an Amer­i­can-Korean pas­tor who paid mem­bers of the Bow­ibu, North Korea’s om­nipo­tent se­cret po­lice, US$10,000 (RM42,000)

to se­cure the three women’s free­dom.

Af­ter re­ceiv­ing United Na­tions refugee sta­tus, they moved to the United States in 2008, and Jo has since ac­quired Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship — an un­likely turn of events for some­one who was taught that “Amer­i­cans are the big­gest en­emy” and “we should kill them or re­port to the of­fi­cials if we see them”.

To­day, Jo is vice-pres­i­dent of NKinUSA, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that helps de­fec­tors.

“We want Pres­i­dent Trump to ac­cept more North Korean refugees into the US, and al­low us to pro­vide re­set­tle­ment ser­vices,” she said.

“Also, Pres­i­dent Trump, please tell China, Vietnam and Laos to stop repa­tri­at­ing the refugees.

“Send­ing them back is re­turn­ing them to tor­ture, im­pris­on­ment or death,” she said.

Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, more than 30,000 North Kore­ans have fled their coun­try, most of them af­ter the 1990s famine. Al­most 10.5 mil­lion peo­ple, or 41 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion, re­main un­der­nour­ished, ac­cord­ing to the UN.

AFP PIC

Res­cue work­ers and vil­lagers search­ing for sur­vivors at the site of a mud­slide in Bel­lana vil­lage in Ka­lu­tara, Sri Lanka, yes­ter­day. Heavy mon­soon rains trig­gered flood­ing and land­slides that killed at least 91 peo­ple and left an­other 110 miss­ing, au­thor­i­ties said.

AFP PIX

Jo (right) with her mother (left) and older sis­ter in Shenyang, China, in 2004 or 2005.

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