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.
Squid Game and the Stories of North Korean Defectors
**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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.