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.