North Korean Refugee Stories: Meet Joo Ri
Joo Ri never knew what it felt like to be envious of others as a child. Growing up in Pyongyang, daughter to a supervisor at the Ministry of Industry, she had no idea that life could be filled with anything but laughter and happy memories. Even after losing her parents at an early age, her father's name and position were enough to keep her going to the best schools and within the right circles in Pyongyang. After falling in love right after completing her army duty, she decided to get married and move with her husband back to his hometown near the North Korea-China border. Even though she was leaving her home, she felt it a small sacrifice to be with the person she loved.
At first, Joo Ri did not mind that life outside Pyongyang was less glamorous. All she wanted was to care for her family and lead a happy life. However, adversity and hardship started to wash over her in slow, steady waves. By the time she gave birth to her second child, her family was chronically short of food and resources. Thus, Joo Ri decided to obtain traveling passes to Pyongyang and sell goods on the route to and from her home. While this was able to sustain a life for her and her family, she started to feel trapped, suffocated, and helpless. The life she had led in Pyongyang was nothing but a memory.
After losing her husband, Joo Ri realized that she could not take living under such bleak oppression any longer. In the dead of night, she was successfully able to sneak through the border into China. Immediately after crossing, she had to go into hiding for months before eventually being sold as a bride to a Chinese man. Unable to let her guard down, she lived in constant fear and anxiety, restricted to her home, until one day the local police conducted a raid where she was caught, detained, and immediately repatriated to North Korea.
Joo Ri was sentenced to over a year in a forced labor camp where she was barely fed, and forced to work more than half the day without rest. Experiencing such ruthless treatment only made her crave freedom more, and immediately after being released, she took to the border again. This time, however, she was unsuccessful. She was caught attempting to cross the border and sentenced to more than 3 years in a re-education camp.
There, she was stripped of her name, hit, slapped, punched, beat, kicked, hung by her wrists from the ceiling, and pushed into a water well, the water level sitting over her knees, where she was forced to stay for a month. In order to survive, she ate bugs and leaves, but she still lost all of her hair and all but one of her top teeth due to starvation.
After being released from the re-education camp, Joo Ri went back to her hometown so she could recuperate and gain back her strength. During this time she had more than seven people, from friends to secret police, spying on her at any given time. Unable to give up the desire for happiness, but now fueled by anger and resentment for the people who had done so much wrong to her, Joo Ri snuck out in the middle of the night, making her sixth attempt to cross the border. This time, she was able to make it into China, and by a stroke of luck, connected with LiNK's network.
Joo Ri is overjoyed to start her new life in South Korea. Even though she suffered so much, she has not lost her sense of compassion, and hopes to work with resettled North Korean children and elderly people. She has also started writing a memoir depicting her life.
Joo Ri hopes to bring light to the situation in North Korea and advocate for the friends and family she left behind.
Thank you for helping supply the funds for Joo Ri’s rescue. Your efforts have changed her life and have provided the opportunity for her to enjoy her new liberty.
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.