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 Red Box: Misunderstandings and Stereotypes about North Koreans
For North Korean refugees, resettling in a new society comes with many challenges. One of these challenges is overcoming the stereotypes about North Korea and the North Korean people.
In the latest episode of The Red Box, our North Korean friends and 2019 LiNK Advocacy Fellows talk about the struggle of of facing stereotypes after resettling in South Korea.
Watch as Jeongyol, Joy, Dasom, and Ilhyeok answer your questions in The Red Box Series!
Read the transcript of this episode below!
All: Welcome to the Red Box!
Are there any misunderstandings about the North Korean people that make you feel uncomfortable?
Joy: When I first came to South Korea, was working part-time at a convenience store. I was still very young and had a very heavy North Korean accent.
In South Korea, when a customer enters the part-time employees don't really greet them. But I used to greet the customers standing and say "Welcome!" so people would ask me where I'm from.
I'd tell them that I'm from North Korea. They'd say "oh really?" After they get their stuff and put them on the counter, they'd asked me if I ever had jjajangmyun or pork in North Korea? They'd ask me these types of questions. Some people ask because they don't know but sometimes they ask questions that insinuate that we were all so poor in North Korea. Not everyone in North Korea is like that. There's people who live well too
Jeongyol: If someone asked me that, I’d tell them I might've lived a wealthier life there [in North Korea].
Joy: So those types of questions made me feel a little uncomfortable.
Jeongyol: A lot of people think like that.
Dasom: People think that all North Koreans are poor, ignorant, and uneducated. People have told me that even though I must have starved and lived poorly in North Korea, I don't look the part.
Maybe some people did or didn't have enough food to eat. There are poor people and there are rich people too. Every country is the same — it’s the same in South Korea too. There are rich, poor, and homeless people in South Korea too. I don't think it's right to judge someone like that. It made me feel very uncomfortable
Jeongyol: When I was in high school, there was a soccer match between North Korea and South Korea. But all of a sudden they asked me which team I'm cheering for. So I was startled by the question.
Should I say I'm cheering for North Korea or South Korea? What's my identity?
Even though I'm living in South Korea as a South Korean citizen, they didn't recognize the fact that I'm also South Korean. That we were the same people.
So at the time I answered, "I'm not cheering for either team. I don't care who wins. I’m just watching the game for fun.” It went over smoothly but afterward I kept thinking about it. But now that I think about it…It wasn't my choice to be born in North Korea.
Jeongyol: I could've been born in the U.S. but somehow I was born in North Korea.
Anyone could've been born in North Korea.
It's not anyone's fault. So from that moment on, I became confident. I am just who I am.
Ilhyeok: I have this older friend from China. During holidays like in January, he'd always ask me if I am visiting my hometown. Whenever he asks me that question, I want to be able to tell him that I'm am going [home] but I can't because I can't go back so I just don’t answer him. When he asked me if I'm going home, I just wished that I could return home one day.
It's heartbreaking not being able to go home.
During Chuseok and New Year's Day, those two holidays are when I miss home the most.
Joy: One uncomfortable question for me was when I was in school or met people was when they asked me why there's no riot or uprising in North Korea. Sometimes people ask because they really don't know but sometimes they insinuate that we're cowards.
And with that viewpoint, they ask why we won't revolt against the government. I try to explain but they still insist and say, ”But you guys still should have done something.” That makes me a little sad.
In North Korea, there's a system of monitoring each other. So if one person says something bad, they'd get reported right away and taken.
Jeongyol: In South Korea there were a lot of civil riots so they ask why we didn't do anything in North Korea.
Joy: But it's a very different situation.
Jeongyol: The system doesn't allow it.
What also made me uncomfortable was if I did something wrong, people would blame it because I'm North Korean.
They say things like, “It's because she's North Korean.” That made me upset. Other people say bad things and make mistakes too. But because of one mistake they say all North Koreans are like that and that I wouldn't know things or be able to do things because I'm from North Korea.
I hated hearing that so I wouldn't tell anyone that I was from North Korea.