Joon Hee escaped from North Korea many years ago at the age of 26. She crossed the Tumen River in a line with three other young women. They held hands as they waded through the water. The river was running so high and fast that when the two women in front of her misstepped, they were immediately swept away, never to be seen again.
After successfully reaching the other side and wandering through the borderlands of China for several days, Joon Hee and her companion were captured and given a choice: work in the bars or be sold as a bride. The other woman chose to work in the bars; Joon Hee chose forced marriage. She was sold as a bride within a week for about $1300 and that is how she spent the next 17 years of her life. Joon Hee and her husband soon began to raise a family, but it was difficult because they were poor. Eventually, her husband left China to find better paying work, promising to send money back.
Joon Hee and her family lived off the money he sent back for several years, but the money stopped coming when her husband had a brain hemorrhage and was no longer able to work. Joon Hee spent over a decade providing for her children as a single mother. Though she lived in China for many years, she never completely got used to life there. Her heart would seize with fear whenever she heard sirens, thinking the police were coming for her. She also couldn’t develop a wide social circle because of her illegal status. “I was always known as the nicest person because I couldn’t risk being arrested if I happened to create bad blood with someone,” she said. Not wanting to live in fear anymore, she began thinking seriously about escaping to South Korea. After connecting with LiNK’s network, she decided to make the journey with her children.
Though it was a long, physically exhausting journey, Joon Hee does not regret her decision to escape. “I have lived such a blessed life. I was never sold to the wrong man, survived safely this whole way, and wasn’t caught once,” she said. Now, she is impatient to get her new life started and wants to get her children into school as soon as possible.
After resettling, she wants to focus on her church activities, as she was an active member in China where she served as her church’s choir leader. She wants to continue singing and hopes to feel what it’s like to be in a close-knit community again. She is ready to leave her life of hiding behind her. She said, “At last, the 17 years have ended.”