I am Joy: I Escaped North Korea and Survived Human Trafficking
I was born and raised in a small North Korean village near the border with China. My family was very poor, and it made life extremely difficult for us. As a child I could not attend school and didn’t have any dreams for my future, because we were just trying to survive.
When I was seven, my mother quietly left us to go to China in order to make money. It took me months to realize that she was never coming back. As a teenager, my stepmother kept trying to marry me off so they would have one less mouth to feed. I didn’t want to be married off, so I finally decided to go to China to find a better life.
I felt so sorry to my father for not being a good daughter. I left a letter for him to explain why I was leaving, and how much I loved him. I told him that I hoped to see him again someday. Next to the letter I also left behind my nicest clothes, hoping he could sell them to buy food. I sewed a secret pocket into my jacket and hid a photo of my family there, and under my shirt collar I hid enough opium to kill myself in case I was caught. The morning I left I didn’t want to raise any suspicion, so I casually said goodbye to my father and walked out like it was any normal day. I couldn’t stop crying as I walked away. I knew that I may never see my family again, especially my father, who had sacrificed so much to raise me.
I will never forget how cold it was at the river. I could feel the snow through my torn shoes and the wind blew through my thin jacket. I was shivering as I stood in the knee-deep snow, waiting for the chance to make my escape. I slid down the riverbank onto the ice. I could hear the ice cracking as I crawled on my stomach across the frozen river. I expected that at any minute, North Korean guards would see me escaping and shoot me. After I finally made it to the Chinese side, it took me hours to find the broker I was supposed to meet.
By the time I found her, my toes were frozen white. The broker took me to her home to rest and recover . But I soon realized I was trapped. She told me I had to repay her and the other brokers a lot of money for helping me escape. And, because I had no money, the only option was to be sold as a bride. I was scared that if I refused, the brokers would sell me to a brothel or I would be forced to work in online sex chatrooms. I also knew that if I ran away, I’d be caught by the Chinese police and sent back to North Korea to face imprisonment and torture.
I had no choice but to be sold as a bride. For three days, a broker paraded me around villages in northern China and crowds of men would gather to bid on me.
In the final village, I sat cowering in the corner of a house. My cheeks were still red from the night I had crossed the river. There were many older Chinese men walking around me, and staring at me. I stared at the floor to avoid looking into their eyes. I did not understand what they were saying, but I could tell they were talking about me. I felt so humiliated. I was treated like an animal in a zoo. The North Korean broker finally found a man who was willing to pay enough for me. I was sold for three thousand dollars. In that moment, I was overcome with hopelessness, sorrow, and loss. I felt like I was losing everything, including my own body, to someone I had just met.
I was only 18.
The man who bought me lived with his parents. They were afraid I would run away so they were always watching me. I was not even allowed to go to the bathroom without their permission. One morning, I started feeling sick so they took me to a local hospital.After some medical tests, the family brought me back to the house and everyone was smiling and talking. I was so confused. Someone called a North Korean woman who lived in my village and asked her to interpret the news for me. I was pregnant. As everyone celebrated, I felt even more hopeless.
This pregnancy would make my escape impossible. In North Korea, I had heard that if you jump off a high place or carry heavy things while you’re pregnant, you’ll have a miscarriage. So I tried to jump off the highest tree in the backyard, and carried around heavy buckets of water. But nine months later, I gave birth to a healthy baby daughter.
For the first few days after her birth, I didn’t even want to look at her. I was sorry and ashamed for feeling that way, but I couldn’t help resenting her. But as the days passed, my daughter began to recognize my face, and she would greet me with a big smile and open arms whenever I walked into the room. Her smile and joyful laughter began to melt away my troubles and hardships.
For the next two years, my daughter became my only reason to live.
Then one day, a North Korean woman who had also been sold into the same village introduced me to a South Korean man. He told me about South Korea, and the possibility of a free life, and said he offered to help me get there. But he warned me that the journey through China and Southeast Asia would be too dangerous for a young child. I was so torn. This was my chance to finally be free from this man and from the constant fear of being caught and sent back to North Korea. But how could I leave my child, the only joy in my life?
I was afraid I would never get an opportunity like this again , so I made the extremely difficult decision to go to South Korea, and I vowed to come back to China as soon as I could to get my daughter. In the early morning of my departure, I held my daughter in my arms as she slept and cried. I thought about the moment she would wake up and cry because I was not there. It reminded me of the day that my own mother had left me. I had felt so lonely and wondered for so long why she had abandoned me. I resented her for giving birth to me if she wasn’t interested in raising a child. And now I had to do the same thing to my own daughter.
I clenched my fists as hard as I could to hold back the tears, and I told the family I was making a trip to the market. I grabbed the bag of clothes I’d hid in the bush the day before, and headed to the bus station. I cried every day for the next three months thinking about my daughter. During my journey out of China, there were many nights when I woke up thinking I’d heard my daughter’s voice calling out “mommy.” One night, I didn’t want to wake everyone up so I went behind the curtain to cry, and I found another woman who was already there crying. She had also left her child behind to escape with my group. We sat behind that curtain in the safe house, weeping and hugging each other.
I finally made it to South Korea in 2013 with the help of Liberty in North Korea. I am currently in my last year of studying social work, and I want to devote my life to helping North Korean women who have endured the same trauma that I have. Although adjusting to a new society is difficult at times, I am determined to work hard so that one day I can bring my daughter to South Korea to be with me.
I should not be here today - I am one of the lucky ones.
At this very moment, women are being treated like a commodity and are being sold to older Chinese men. A recent report estimated that 60% of the North Korean female refugees in China are trafficked into the sex trade. 50% of those trafficked are forced into prostitution, 30% are in a forced marriage, and 15% are working in the cyber sex industry.
I am here as a survivor to share the darkest moments from my past so that I can help bring an end to the exploitation of other North Korean women refugees.
For North Korean women, escaping from North Korea is not the end of their journey but the beginning of their fight for freedom.
Please extend your love and give your support so that more North Korean people will find true freedom and safety. Thank you. I am grateful and hopeful. I am Joy.
See what life is like for North Korean women who are sold in China in the short film "Sleep Well, My Baby". Based on true stories from women rescued through LiNK.
Read Joy’s full journey from escaping North Korea to being sold in China, and finally reaching freedom through LiNK’s rescue routes in our 3-part series here!
The DMZ and North Korea
What Is the DMZ?
The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula that serves as a buffer zone between North Korea and South Korea. The DMZ is a de facto border barrier and divides the Korean Peninsula approximately in half. It roughly follows latitude 38°N (the 38th parallel), the original demarcation line between North Korea and South Korea at the end of World War II. The Demilitarized Zone incorporates territory on both sides of the cease-fire line as it existed at the end of the Korean War (1950-1953), and was created by pulling back the respective forces 1.2 miles along each side of the line.
Upon the creation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) in 1948, the DMZ became a de facto international border and one of the tensest fronts in the Cold War. The DMZ is about 160 miles long and approximately 2.5 miles wide. The truce that ended hostilities was signed here in 1953, but, as an official peace treaty was never agreed to, the two sides have still officially been at war for over sixty years. There are no troops in the DMZ itself, although both sides of the 2.5-mile strip of land separating the Koreas are the most heavily armed in the world.
A Brief History of the DMZ
Even as North Korea and South Korea marched together in a show of political solidarity at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, and a newly combined Korean women's hockey team competed as one nation, there remains one unmistakable reminder of the chasm between the two nations. The DMZ was established in 1953 as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement between the United Nations, North Korea, and China to end the Korean War. In essence, it is a line in the sand that extends the entire 160-mile length of the Korean Peninsula, passing just about 50 miles from the Olympic village in Pyeongchang.
The 38th parallel north was the original boundary between the United States and the Soviet Union’s briefly held administration areas of Korea at the end of World War II. Both the North and South remained dependent on their sponsor states from 1948 to the outbreak of the Korean War. This conflict, which claimed over three million lives and divided the Korean Peninsula along ideological lines, started on June 25th, 1950, with a full-front DPRK invasion across the 38th parallel, and ended in 1953 after international intervention pushed the front of the war back to near the 38th parallel.
The Armistice Agreement for the Restoration of the South Korean State was signed on July 27th, 1953, and resulted in the creation of the DMZ as each side agreed to move their troops 1.2 miles back from the front line, establishing a 2.5-mile wide buffer zone. The Military Demarcation Line (DML) goes through the center of the DMZ and indicates where the front was when the agreement was signed. Owing to this theoretical stalemate and genuine hostility between North and South Korea, large numbers of troops are still stationed along both sides of the buffer zone. Each side holds constant guard against potential aggression from the other side, even 68 years after its establishment. The armistice agreement clearly explains the number of military personnel and what kind of weapons are allowed in the DMZ.
DMZ as a Cultural Site
Borders are usually geopolitical boundaries that mark the legal limits of a nation's sovereignty, and are often of interest to tourists for the meeting of cultures that occur therein, rather than for their divisive functions. The DMZ acts as a unique cultural site for the two Koreas, and this is seen as an attraction for tourists to the region. They recognize borderlands as symbolic cultural landscapes loaded with iconic sites and attractions that reflect the public memory. This memory is often focused on the past, ongoing wars, or territorial conflicts that have formed the border.
Tourism can act as a force of peace, a mechanism that promotes empathy and supports reconciliation processes between nations. In addition to fostering cultural exchange, research suggests that countries with open and sustainable tourism industries enjoy higher levels of peace, economic prosperity, and resilience. However, the highly regulated movement of Korean nationals on both sides of the DMZ usually limits the peace-building opportunities that are traditionally associated with an exchange of culture. This strict control of the border along with the careful curation of museums and war memorials has allowed each side to write its own version of history.
In the area, there are three small conference buildings administered by the United Nations in the Joint Security Area, all painted the international organization's signature blue, while North Korea controls three others. On the North side, a building called Panmon Hall looms, while on the South stands Freedom House, which hosts Red Cross and visitor activities. The Freedom House was intended to be a meeting area for separated families from both countries, but the North declined, fearing that its citizens might defect.
The Security Status at the DMZ
The border between North and South Korea is one of the most heavily guarded stretches of land in the world. The DMZ, littered with scores of mines and barbed-wire fences, is nightmarishly difficult to cross, except the Joint Security Area (JSA). JSA is a special buffer zone inside what is known as the "truce village" of Panmunjom, about 35 miles north of Seoul. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people usually visit the JSA for a chance to see North Korean soldiers standing at attention just dozens of feet away and to officially step into North Korean territory inside a United Nations administered conference room that literally straddles the military border.
A visit there feels like a military theater, with the stern warnings from the South Korean soldiers under United Nations (UN) command not to make gestures at their counterparts. Since demarcation, the DMZ has had numerous cases of incidents and incursions by both sides, although the North Korean government typically never acknowledges direct responsibility for any of these incidents. This can be a highly risky place if mutual respect is not maintained from both sides.
Human Rights and Repression in North Korea
North Korea is one of the world's most repressive states. The government restricts all civil and political liberties for its citizens, including freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion. It prohibits all organized political opposition, independent media, civil society, and trade unions. The government routinely uses arbitrary arrest and punishment of crimes, torture in custody, forced labor, and executions to maintain fear and control across the country. Besides the DMZ, North Korea is a highly controlled country where human rights are ignored.
The international community has continued to press the North Korean government to expand its engagement with United Nations human rights mechanisms, including action on findings of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI). The COI report shows that the country has committed crimes against humanity including extermination, murder, enslavement, imprisonment, rape, sexual violence, forced abortion, and other heinous crimes. The citizens of North Korea require a lot of help and support from the international community in order to attain a better life.
The North Korean people face a brutal and repressive government that isolates them from the world and denies their most basic human rights, but you can help to create change. At Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), we help North Korean refugees escape through a 3,000-mile secret rescue route and empower North Koreans who have reached freedom to be changemakers, advocates, and leaders on this issue. You can help make a difference in the lives of North Korean citizens by learning more about our organization, raising funds, advocating for the people of North Korea, starting a rescue team, or making a donation today!