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"And We Will Be Free" Jo Eun's Story

December 17, 2019

The Tumen River starts on the slopes of  Mount Paektu. Its icy waters twist and turn for hundreds of miles before slipping off the Korean peninsula and into the East Sea. In the summer, the reeds along the river grow taller than me and yellow and white wildflowers blossom along the banks.

I was born next to the Tumen. I grew up playing on its rocky shore, splashing and swimming in its waters. In the winter my friends and I would race up and down on ice skates. For my mom’s birthday, we would catch fish and cook them under the shade of a tree. I have many fond memories of the Tumen.

But I want to tell you about the times I tried to cross it. Because those times nearly cost me my life. The Tumen is more than a river. It’s a razor that cuts its way between North Korea and China. It’s a meandering border of shallow water that you can wade across in minutes. And in the winter, you can slide across its ice even faster. Just like I did for the final time last year.

I decided to cross the Tumen for the first time 8 years ago. I did it for my daughter. Her name is Hee-Mang which means hope in Korean. As a baby she was so calm and happy. I would adore her sweet smile and when I held her it melted away the pain and heartache of life in North Korea.

When she started saying “mommy” and took her first steps I was ecstatic. Her laughter was precious and her eyes beamed with life. But I was always worried that I couldn’t be a good mother.

I wanted to give Hee-Mang a better life than I had.

I knew of friends who had defected to South Korea. They sent money back and their families seemed to be much better off. So I decided to leave North Korea to make money and eventually bring Hee-Mang to freedom.

The first time I tried to cross the Tumen I didn’t get far. The broker I hired to help me escape worked for the secret police. They dragged me out of my hiding spot and sent me off to a detention center.

That’s where I first learned how much freedom would actually cost.

It was March and a pregnant woman arrived after being arrested in China. The courtyard of the detention center was covered in snow and ice. The guard forced her to walk around on her hands and knees in the snow for hours. He mocked her, saying that you got pregnant with the baby of a dog so you have to walk like a dog. Then he’d pry open her mouth and spit in it. If any of us cried or pleaded for him to show mercy, he’d force us to do the same.

When we weren’t crammed into our cells, sleeping on a filthy floor, we were forced to work. From 5am to 11pm we’d go into the mountains to gather firewood. The labor left your hands raw with blisters and the cold bit at your fingers and toes.

We were only fed a quarter of an ear of corn per meal. It was never enough and the hunger clawed at our stomachs. People grew so hungry that the guards had to drag them from the toilets so they wouldn’t eat their own feces. Some mornings I woke up to find one of my cellmates stiff and lifeless. We’d march off to gather firewood and their pale body just laid there, their cheeks hollowed out from the hunger.

One afternoon, I decided to escape. I walked over to an unlocked window, flung myself out the opening, and started running. For 4 days I trekked through the wilderness until I reached my hometown. But from the hill above my parent’s house I could see the security agents waiting for me. I had no place to go and I was terrified of being caught. I wanted to see Hee-Mang again but it was too dangerous.

So I returned to the Tumen River. It was summer now – when the rains come up from the south and the river swells into a rage. It was pouring the night I crossed and the current swept me downstream. I waded out on the other side and into China. A Chinese family gave me food and dry clothes and when I told them I needed to go to South Korea, they connected me with a broker.

I moved south through China with a group of 12 other North Korean refugees. We were nearly to Southeast Asia when we stopped to spend the night in a small motel. There were two young boys with us. They were 9 and 10 and they were running around the motel yelling in Korean. The receptionist must have overheard them.

I was on the fourth floor when I heard police sirens outside. I raced to the window but it was bolted shut with metal bars. The Chinese police barged into the room and handcuffed all of us.

There was a teenage girl with us whose mom was waiting for her in South Korea. She wailed and pleaded with the Chinese police: “Please please, can I just go to be with my mom. She’s going to be so worried about me. I just need my mom.” She cried out over and over. As a mother I felt terrible for her. I just wanted to tell her that it would be alright. But we all knew that was a lie.

We were returned to North Korea.

The secret police demanded the women strip naked and they searched our genitals for anything we might have hidden, slapping and whipping us and calling us whores the entire time. My interrogator wanted me to confess to trying to defect to South Korea. I begged her to understand my situation but instead she grabbed my head and slammed it against a nail in the wall. I remember thinking as she took a fistful of my hair “Is this my fate? Is this how I’ll die?  The tears mixed with the blood pouring out of the gash in my forehead.

I couldn’t let go of the thought of Hee-Mang growing up without a mom. I wanted to be a good mother, I wanted to give her everything she deserved. I knew I couldn’t die here.

Everyone in my group but me was sent to a political prison camp, even those two little boys. But because I refused to confess to trying to defect, I avoided that fate and was instead transferred to another prison where I was forced to work 18 hours a day in a gold mine to earn money for the regime.

They worked us so hard and fed us so little. But I had a daughter waiting for me. And now more than ever, I wanted her to live in freedom. Life in prison was so difficult that I considered killing myself many times. There is a saying in North Korea “Women are weak, but mothers are strong”. Being Hee-Mang’s mother gave me the strength to withstand the pain. For two years, I endured the back-breaking work hoping for the day I would reunite with Hee-Mang.

3 years after I was released I stood next to the Tumen again, staring north and dreaming of freedom. This time I had Hee-Mang with me. She was 4 years old now and I wanted her to have a happy, fulfilling life. I wanted her to see the world and learn about other cultures. There was nothing for her in North Korea except pain and misery. So I scooped her up from her bed and carried her out of the house.

I put her on my back, her head nestled on my shoulder, and waded into the river. I was almost to the middle of the river when her foot touched the water.

Hee-Mang woke up and whimpered “Oh it’s cold.” That’s all it took.

The border guards heard her and raced down to the water. I waded faster and faster with Hee-Mang’s little arms wrapped tightly around my neck. I lunged with each step trying desperately to get away. Then I felt a hand grab my hair. Hee-Mang started screaming as I tried to fight them off. But when they ripped her from me, I had no choice. I surrendered.

They dragged us back to shore and started kicking me and stomping on my head. And then they kicked my daughter. My precious, beautiful, Hee-Mang. An innocent 4-year old girl. She was sobbing in pain and her cries for mommy were muffled by the blood spilling out from her mouth.

I jumped on top of her to cover her little body from the soldiers’ boots. I pleaded with them to beat me instead. She didn’t know what was going on.

It wasn’t her fault. “It was me, I did this! Punish me, not her!” I screamed.

--

Last year I crossed the Tumen for the final time. I could see my breath as I shuffled across the ice on my hands and knees. I crawled up the other bank into China, bent back the barbed wire, and ran for the van that was waiting for me on the other side. From the van, I looked back at North Korea and wondered if I’d ever come back or see Hee-Mang again.

This time I connected with someone that knew a group helping North Korean refugees reach safety.  The group turned out to be Liberty in North Korea and they helped me move quickly out of the border region and then we headed south. I couldn’t eat or sleep until we made it out of China because I was so scared of getting caught. Every time the bus stopped, I was certain that the police had found me again.

But soon I found myself crossing the border into Southeast Asia. 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 Hee-Mang wasn’t with me.

I left her with my family because I couldn’t bear the thought of her getting caught again and sent to a political prison camp. I question that decision every day.

Today I owe it to my daughter to tell my story. Hee-Mang is like a lighthouse to me. She gives me light and a reason for why I need to keep living and working hard for freedom. I hold onto the dream that one day we will live together again.

Before I left last year I bought us matching watches. It’s just a cheap watch, but to me it has more value than any jewel. When I miss her, I wear it and I have hope that each minute that passes is one minute closer to the day I will see her again.

I wouldn’t be telling this story today without the support of people like you. Thank you for helping me escape and finally reach freedom. Your willingness to help North Koreans even though you do not know our names or see our faces, is unbelievable. Your generosity has changed my life and the lives of so many others.

But most of all, you give me hope that one day I will be able to return to the Tumen River and walk hand in hand with Hee-Mang.  

And we will no longer have to be afraid. Because we will be together.

And we will be free.

Thank you.

Foreign Media in North Korea - How Kpop is Challenging the Regime

April 22, 2022

Movies, TV shows, and music hold power. They’re a way for us to connect through common experiences, reckon with different sides of humanity, and revel in the beauty of being here at all. They transport us to another time and place- perhaps one of our imaginations- and most importantly, allow us to dream and imagine a limitless future.

Popular South Korean drama Crash Landing on You. Photo credit: Netflix and IMDb.


In recent years, South Korean media and entertainment has gained international recognition. People like Hyun Bin and Son Yejin, the stars of popular Korean drama Crash Landing on You, have become household names, while Parasite swept the 2020 Academy Awards and music from K-pop groups like BTS are charting globally.

Meanwhile, just across the border, North Korea remains one of the most closed societies in the world. Yet even in the “hermit kingdom,” foreign media is accelerating empowerment of the people and change within the country!

Forced Isolation and the Regime’s Information Monopoly

The North Korean government has maintained power for decades through a system of imposed isolation, relentless indoctrination, and brutal repression. A complete monopoly on information and ideas within the country has been key- outside media threatens to challenge the legitimacy of their propaganda, and by extension, their control.

The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea reported an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion as well as of the rights to freedom of speech, opinion, expression, and association.

North Korea is technologically isolated from the world


The regime employs a range of strategies to enforce information control:

  • Restricting movement across borders and within the country
  • Random house searches
  • Severe punishment, including public executions, to deter foreign media consumption and sharing
  • Sophisticated digital surveillance
  • Jamming phone signals and locating users through signal triangulation
  • Mobile OS file signature system that only permits government-approved apps and files


The Spread of Foreign Media

Despite this isolation and unparalleled internal restrictions, the North Korean people have been quietly changing their country from within, including through foreign media access. Through market activity and the movement of people and goods across the Chinese border, they have forced the gradual opening up of their society. Movies and music are smuggled into the country on USBs, SD and MicroSD cards, and small portable media players, offering illicit access to information from the outside world.

With lights off and windows shuttered, North Koreans will watch foreign media despite the risks. If all else fails, bribes are a way for people to reduce punishment if caught. Most North Korean police and government officials rely on bribes to survive, and some defectors complain that they are actually the biggest consumers of foreign media because they confiscate so much.

A representation of how North Koreans watch illegal foreign media

Information Technology in North Korea

Within North Korea, a broad range of information technologies are available, although they should be registered with authorities. Laptops and computers officially run on a government operating system, Red Star OS, while the North Korean intranet, Kwangmyong, is air-gapped from the internet and heavily surveilled. However, in practice, many North Koreans have non-networked devices used for games, editing software, watching videos, and to copy, delete and transfer media on removable devices.

Mobile phones are also common with approximately 6 million on the North Korean network, meaning roughly 1 in 4 people have one. These North Korean phones generally cannot make international calls and the operating system limits users to approved state media (programs have been developed to bypass this security). On the other hand, smuggled Chinese phones can be used in border regions on the Chinese network. These have been crucial for staying in touch with relatives who have escaped or defected, who often send back money and information from the outside world.

North Korean woman with phone. Photo credit: Eric Lafforgue.

Radios are the only channel of foreign media and news available real-time across the country. While they should officially be registered and fixed to North Korean stations, it is relatively easy to tamper with radio sets to pick up foreign broadcasts. In border regions, some TVs can also pick up live programming from South Korea and China. Traditionally, TVs were connected to DVD players, but newer LCD televisions also have direct USB input ports.

How Foreign Media Changes Perceptions

Among foreign media, entertainment from South Korea is particularly attractive, produced in the same base language by people with the same ancestry. They contain glimpses of rich and free realities just across the border. In comparison, domestic North Korean media seems old-fashioned and disingenuous, designed to reinforce the regime’s ideologies.

As North Koreans learn more about life, freedom and prosperity in the outside world, and their own relative poverty, the regime’s ideology and control are eroded.

North Koreans watching a Korean drama on a laptop

“At first you see the cars, apartment buildings, and markets and you think it must be a movie set. But the more you watch, there’s no way it can be just a set. If you watch one or two [movies] it always raises these doubts, and if you keep watching you know for sure. You realize how well South Koreans and other foreigners live.”

- Danbi, escaped North Korea in 2011


Empowered by foreign media, North Koreans are exploring their creativity and potential through everyday acts of resistance- using South Korean slang, copying fashion styles, and sharing pop culture references. In this culture war, Kim Jong-un has called for crackdowns on "unsavory, individualistic, anti-socialist behavior" among young people to restrict freedom of expression.

Foreign media also facilitates shared acts of resistance. People will swap USB devices with trusted friends and neighbors, increasing confidence in one another through a symmetrical transaction. Some people may also watch and discuss movies and shows together, increasing the media’s subversive influence and creating social networks.



The Regime’s Response

During the pandemic, we’ve seen unprecedented levels of isolation and restrictions, closing off the country more than ever before. To buttress control, Kim Jong Un has simultaneously increased crackdowns and punishments on foreign media consumption. In December 2020, the “anti-reactionary thought law” made watching foreign media punishable by 15 years in a political prison camp.

While the situation is harrowing, the government’s extreme response underscores the power of foreign media. The regime recognizes that social changes driven by North Korean people are a threat to their authority and control in the long term.


Accelerating Foreign Media Access and Change 

Moving forward, increasing access to outside information is one of the most effective ways to help the North Korean people and bring forward change.

Information and technology support for North Korean people has historically been an under-utilized and under-invested strategy. LiNK Labs is our area of work focused on this opportunity- we’re developing technologies, networks, and content to empower North Korean people with access to information and ideas from the outside world.

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