Joy's Story: Part 1 - Growing Up in North Korea
I didn’t have a dream for my future when I was a child because my family was just trying to survive. My dad ran a farm, but one day the regime took all of his property. We had to start illegally selling wood to make money. We were always worried that we would get caught. We lived in constant fear and anxiety.
I remember not being able to eat for two days. My parents went into the mountains to find grass to boil and eat. Once we couldn't find grass, so my dad and I went to someone's cornfield. He carried me on his back and, when we got there, we pretended that I had to pee so I could go into the field and eat the unripe corn.
Eventually things got too hard for my mom, so she divorced my dad and left us. Life was so hard back then.
Because we never had enough money, there were a lot of arguments between my dad and my stepmom. There were other issues too—my sister’s husband tried to rape me. My father and stepmother also tried to marry me off when I was a teenager. I understood that they couldn’t keep taking care of me because of the economic situation, but I didn’t want to get married. When they set up a meeting with a prospective partner, I didn’t go but lied to my parents that I had and didn’t like him at all, mentioning a lot of bad things about the guy although I had never met him. I felt bad for him, but I had to do that because I didn’t want to get married.
Eventually, I decided to leave for China, hoping that I would have a better life there. I didn’t want to go to South Korea at the time because I heard a lot of rumors about how difficult living there was for North Korean people. Instead, I wanted to find an old Chinese couple, like my grandma and grandpa, who would let me live with them in exchange for taking care of them. I was naive.
I cried a lot at the idea of leaving my family and friends. I couldn’t tell my family that I was going to China, but I did tell some of my close friends. I asked them to give my goodbye letters to my family. I felt so apologetic to my father that I didn’t do much for him as his daughter. Before then I didn’t like my father because, after the regime took away his farm, he started drinking a lot and not taking care of our family, yet I just couldn’t help feeling heartbroken leaving him. I also got to spend 3 days with my mom who lived far away from my family before I went to China. At the time I got to have a lot of conversations that brought us a lot of healing and reconciliation.
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.
I found a broker who gave money to the border guards so they didn’t patrol when I was supposed to cross the Tumen river. When I got to the middle of the river I felt that the ice was quite thin so I had to crawl to cross the rest of the river that was covered by snow. I didn’t realize that moment but later after I arrived I realized that my feet got so swollen because they got frozen from crawling the river in the snow. I couldn’t feel my feet for a while.
Continue reading Part 2 of Joy's story, focused on her time spent hiding in China.
You can support North Koreans like Joy by donating to our work. To date, we have helped over 1200 North Korean refugees reach freedom and safety through rescues. Learn how you can help.
North Korean Refugee Rescues: An Update from Our Field Manager
Over the past few years, the impact of COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on the day-to-day lives of North Korean people. Pandemic-related border lockdowns, increased surveillance, and unprecedented restrictions made it impossible for North Koreans to escape and reach freedom.
After a painstakingly long pause on rescues, at the end of 2022 we were finally able to start moving people safely again. Our field team has worked tirelessly to establish new, viable routes and adapt to circumstances on the ground. Navigating unprecedented restrictions and developing new routes has led to significantly higher and extremely volatile rescue costs, but our commitment is stronger than ever to help North Korean refugees reach freedom.
We recently sat down with our field manager, Jennifer* to hear directly about the current needs, challenges, and potential of this new era of rescues.
Could you give us a general overview of the situation in China?
So much has changed since the start of the pandemic. Activists have been kicked out of the country; brokers no longer want to do this work because of the increased surveillance and restrictions. The number of underground rescue networks has shrunk significantly. Navigating these challenges puts us at higher risk, which means that we have to use more resources, including people on the ground, to guarantee that our groups move safely. Because of the increased costs, we soon might have to ask people to wait to be rescued and it’s agonizing, especially because timing is critical in the underground railroad. There are very few moments when everything aligns and it is safe to travel, but because we don’t have funds, North Korean refugees lose those rare, precious opportunities. The North Koreans I’ve been in communication with are living in constant fear because of the increased use of security technology by the state, such as facial recognition with AI. On top of that, domestic violence continues to be a serious issue for many North Korean women who were trafficked or forcibly married in China.
Is there a risk of being sent back to North Korea right now?
Refugees who are caught in China are forcibly sent back to North Korea where they are severely punished. However, because of the pandemic, North Korea sealed its borders in January 2020 and has yet to reopen them. This means that repatriation hasn’t been possible yet, but we are hearing rumors that North Korea will start receiving people again soon.
Many people who have tried to escape were arrested and we’ve heard that currently, there are a large number of North Korean refugees in Chinese prisons.
What kind of situations are people escaping from in China?
It’s mostly North Korean women who were trafficked or forcibly married to Chinese men. Some have been living in China for several years and the pandemic left them stranded with no way to escape. We had heard that some of these women were facing even worse treatment from their Chinese husbands than before. The people who arrived in China in 2019 or early 2020 only had a very short period of time to learn the language, culture, and to adjust before having to quarantine. It has been much more difficult for these people to try to escape from China.
More recently, some of the refugees we’re in communication with have serious health issues. But they can’t go to the hospital because they’re not Chinese citizens and would risk being arrested and sent back to North Korea. They are hoping to make it to South Korea to get the healthcare they need.
And what are some of the challenges that North Koreans in China face day-to-day?
They can’t go outside. There was already a lack of freedom to travel and move around freely before the pandemic, but it has only gotten worse since then. When I speak with them, it feels like they’re losing hope. The reality of how difficult and expensive the journey has become is discouraging, especially because they hear about people who attempted the journey and were caught and arrested. So for people who were connected with us recently, many were shocked to hear about our work. They said it was almost surreal because they didn’t think it was possible to get to freedom at this time.
What motivated these people to leave North Korea in the first place?
It’s different depending on the person. There are usually personal circumstances that lead them to look for better opportunities in China or South Korea. Many people are tricked into human trafficking. Some women choose to live with a Chinese husband of their own will. They believe it’s better to live in China in this way rather than live in North Korea.
What have been the biggest challenges for you?
While I'm very grateful that we've been able to resume rescues, it's a shame that we can only move a limited number of people due to increased costs and heightened security. I stay in close contact with refugees in China who are hoping to reach freedom, and some are in urgent situations. A woman who was 4 months pregnant had to make the journey before her belly got too big. Some refugees have health conditions that need immediate treatment, but they’re unable to go to the hospital. My hope is that we can rescue as many people as possible so they can experience freedom and live the full lives that they deserve.
Since restarting rescues last December, the significant increase in costs have depleted our rescue and resettlement funds, leaving many North Korean refugees waiting, once again, for an opportunity to escape. Your support is needed now more than ever.
Throughout the month of June, all one time gifts made here will go 100% towards our rescue and resettlement efforts. In honor of World Refugee Day 2023 and the countless people waiting for their rare and precious opportunity to reach freedom, give a gift today.
*Jennifer is a pseudonym used to protect our field manager’s identity and avoid compromising this work.