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I am Joy: I Escaped North Korea and Survived Human Trafficking

November 5, 2019

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.

LiNK Advocacy Fellows North Korean Defector Joy


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.

LiNK Advocacy Fellows North Korean Defector Joy


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?

LiNK Advocacy Fellows North Korean Defector Joy


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.

LiNK Advocacy Fellows North Korean Defector 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!

Squid Game and the Stories of North Korean Defectors

October 18, 2021


Kang Sae-byeok from Squid Game as player 067
Via Netflix


**Warning: Contains plot spoilers


Netflix’s Squid Game has taken the world by storm, becoming the platform’s most-watched show debut and infiltrating popular culture. The high-stakes thriller juxtaposes nostalgic kid’s games with brutal consequences, hooking viewers with a compelling cast and pointed social commentary.


One of Squid Game’s most captivating characters is Kang Sae-byeok, a tough-as-nails North Korean defector who wants nothing more than to reunite her family. While she and her little brother managed to safely reach South Korea, their father was killed during the border crossing and mother was captured.


Sae-byeok’s story reflects the real experiences of the North Korean refugees we work with who have risked everything for freedom. Many were separated from family, have little support when resettling, and face prejudice.

The Perils of Defecting

Crossing the heavily guarded border between North and South Korea is virtually impossible. Instead, refugees must escape through China and journey 3000 miles through a modern-day-underground-railroad to safety in Southeast Asia. This has only become more difficult with pandemic-related restrictions on movement and border lockdowns.


A map of the route through China and Southeast Asia that North Korean refugees travel to safety


If caught fleeing North Korea or arrested in China, which doesn’t recognize defectors as refugees, North Koreans will be sent back and face harsh punishment - brutal beatings, forced labor, and even internment in a political prison camp. 


This is the reality that people like Sae-byeok’s mother face.

Still, thousands of North Koreans have risked everything to seek a better life. An estimated 33,000 refugees have resettled in South Korea.


“I wasn’t sure if I would see my family again because of the possibility of getting caught while escaping to China. Before I left, I got some opium and carried it underneath the collar of my shirt so I could take it to kill myself in case I got caught.”

- Joy, escaped through LiNK’s networks in 2013


Continue reading Joy’s story to freedom here.


Difficulty Assimilating

Once they reach safety and begin their new lives, refugees face a new set of challenges. Some have described the experience as stepping out of a time machine, 50 years into the future. Amidst figuring out the everyday intricacies of modern life, many refugees are still coping with the trauma of their past.


In addition to struggling to make ends meet, Sae-byeok faces social pressure and stigma as a North Korean. She deliberately masks her North Korean accent around everyone except her brother and is subjected to remarks about being a “communist” and “spy.” 


While it is not specified how her brother ended up in an orphanage, one can assume that Sae-byeok left him there in hopes that he’ll receive care and education that she cannot provide. Tragically, the difficulties of establishing a new life in South Korea separated her from her family once again.


Kang Sae-byeok and her younger brother at the orphanage in Squid Game
Via Netflix


“At first I struggled a lot. There were many times when I either didn’t understand South Koreans or they didn’t understand me due to our different accents and words...Another difficulty was loneliness…I still feel lonely from time to time. I really miss my family.”

- Hae-Sun, rescued while hiding in China in 2013


Read more from Hae-Sun’s experience starting a new life in South Korea here.


Working with Brokers

Hoping to bring her mother to South Korea, Sae-byeok was in contact with shady brokers who scammed her of her money. It can cost tens of thousands of dollars to fund these risky escapes, especially directly out of North Korea, and then from China to Southeast Asia.


With the prize money from the games, Sae-byeok hoped to reunite her family and live under one roof again.


Kang Sae-byeok’s wish to use the prize money from Squid Game to reunite her family
Via Netflix

This is Not Where the Story Ends

Working with the right people who can help safely smuggle people across borders is the real deal. Liberty in North Korea helps North Korean refugees escape safely through a modern-day underground railroad, without ANY cost or condition.*LiNK’s rescue efforts begin in China 


LiNK reunites families, supports their new lives in resettlement, and helps individuals, like Sae-byeok, reach their full potential in freedom.


When LiNK’s field staffer told me I was finally safe, I was overwhelmed. I had endured so much to make it this far - hard labor, imprisonment, and torture. And even though I was overjoyed to make it to freedom, I was deeply saddened that [my daughter] Hee-Mang wasn’t with me… I hold onto the dream that one day we will live together again.”

- Jo-Eun, escaped North Korea through LiNK’s network in 2018


Read the story of Jo-Eun’s journey to freedom here.


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When North Koreans successfully resettle, they become some of the most effective agents of change on the issue by sharing their stories with the world and sending money and information back to their families in North Korea. 

Kang Sae-byeok’s story has come to an end, but you can do something to stand with the North Korean people today.

Watch undercover footage from real rescue missions.

→ Read more stories from North Korean refugees.

Donate to make rescue missions possible.

→ Connect with the global movement for the North Korean people by following us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Your generous donation will rescue and support North Korean refugees
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