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