Having escaped from North Korea herself, Jooyang considers her job a calling. She believes that the impact of one person may not be significant, but that North Korean refugees working together, using the power of media, can have a huge influence in shedding light on the real North Korean crisis.
Earlier this year, Jooyang flew to India to give a speech at the Asia Liberty Forum. Her speech, chronicling her life in North Korea, her escape, and reuniting with her family in South Korea, is truly incredible to read. Click to read more.
The Price of Freedom
I would like to start off my time with you with a story of a memorable moment I experienced during my escape from North Korea. At the time, most of the really dangerous and difficult parts of the escape were behind me, thanks to the help of the people from Thailand Immigration and the Korean government.
Before I knew it, the day came for me to board the plane that would take me to South Korea. There were 45 other North Korean refugees boarding the plane with me that day, and for all of us, this was our first time on an airplane.
Because it was my first experience on a plane, I was fascinated and couldn’t stay seated. I was placed in a middle seat, and I walked around the plane hoping to catch a glimpse out the window to see what was out there. After liftoff, I found an empty seat by the window, and to this day, I cannot forget what I saw. Under the clouds, there were outlines of cities and towns getting smaller and smaller, and I was fascinated. It all felt like a dream. I was finally going to South Korea, I was on a plane for the first time, I was surrounded by clouds in the sky, but what made this most memorable was the fact that I met my first American.
The education system in North Korea taught us that it was the Americans that were responsible for dividing Korea into a North and a South. From a very young age, we are taught to hate America and Americans above everything else. During sports days at school, we were given effigies of Americans to knock and kick down, which we would then light on fire and burn. But now there was a real American before me. Out of curiosity, I got closer. I remember him having a pointy nose. When he saw me, he smiled the most beautiful angelic smile and said “Hi~, Hello.” I thought this was so odd. He was so nice, and so unlike how I had imagined Americans to be. I was overwhelmed by feelings. I felt shy and apologetic all at once, and so I did the only thing I could. I ran back to my seat and hid. The day I flew to Korea was my birthday, as well, and I remember not being able to express to anyone all the mixed emotions I was feeling that day. If I think back on it now, my heart still beats fast.
And now to share my story, I would like to start by introducing you to my family. My family consists of 5 members—my father, mother, me, my younger sister and my younger brother. We had received information about people escaping from North Korea on the radio. We bought a cassette player to listen to music on cassette tapes, but it came with a built-in radio.
In North Korea, you are only allowed to listen to the one radio channel that the government operates, and anyone caught listening to anything else is detained and interrogated, or placed in labor camps. In North Korea, we are limited in what we can see and hear. We are only allowed to watch movies that the government has pre-approved, such as older films from Russia, India and China, but we are not allowed to watch recent films from these countries. If we are caught watching South Korean or American programming, it is an automatic sentence of 10 years in labor camps. So all radios that can pick up foreign broadcasting must be turned in to the North Korean authorities.
But our family did not turn in our radio. Instead, we secretly listened to news about those who successfully escaped from North Korea, as well as news about the rest of the world. The radio, for me, was a beam of light penetrating the small confines of my world. We listened to the radio in hiding, with a blanket covering us. We did not just listen—we absorbed the information we learned from the radio, as if we were literally eating the words. We absorbed the words because we had been hungry for them, only we just had not known that we were hungry for them until we heard them.
In North Korea, we are limited in our freedom of independent thinking, of traveling and of religious practices. We are taught by the government to praise only the members of the Kim family, to live by the Juche ideology, and to make it a way of life. But in listening to the radio every day, our thinking changed, and we came to crave the life of freedom people were living outside of North Korea. To live that free life, our family made the difficult decision to escape.
But for a family of five to escape together was risky and dangerous. So to better our chances, we divided our family into three groups.
In 2007, my father commuted back and forth from China to plan an escape route for us. After experiencing crossing the Tumen River four times, he was able to successfully defect to South Korea through China and Thailand. My father worked hard in South Korea for a year to make as much money as he could, and hired a broker a year later to let us know of the news. My mother, sister and brother were the next to defect, this time through China, Mongolia and Cambodia. I was old enough at the time to stay alone, and after finishing high school, I began working at the factory that my father had worked for in North Korea. I also worked selling things at the market to make ends meet. The North Korean authorities began to question me about my father’s whereabouts, and wanted to know where my other family members were, as well.
In North Korea, electricity is very unreliable, so many people who venture out to sea get into accidents and never come back. I told them that my father had gone out to sea, and when he did not return, my mother and siblings went to go search for him. I told them that they were searching for my father and selling things at different markets while doing so, but that I wanted to stay rooted in one place, and that is why I did not go with them. I wanted the guards to know that I was doing the best that I could to lead the life of a model North Korean citizen, but they did not believe me.
They kept a constant watch on me, and set out a search to catch my father. I was called back to the police station multiple times to be questioned, and they were looking for ways to confirm my father was a criminal. In the past, my father had helped a few close family friends listen to our radio, but when one of them got caught, they named my father as the perpetrator, and their surveillance over me became more suffocating. Through questioning, they tried to break me. The authorities wanted me to confess to my father’s wrongdoing, but I told them that I knew nothing about it, and that if it was true, I did not take part in it. If I admitted that I had listened to the radio, my life would be in danger, as well. They could not find a reason to imprison me, but they maintained a strict watch on everything I did. I worked hard and experienced hunger more times than I can count, but I held onto the hope of seeing my family again one day, and it kept me alive.
A year later, my father sent a broker for me. The broker appeared at the factory where I was working, to hand me a small note, letting me know to meet him at a location nearby. But I became aware that the broker was gathering the attention of the people around us, and I did not feel safe meeting him. Plus, traveling 24 kilometers away from town—at the specified location—was almost impossible with North Korea’s unreliable transportation system.
I did not want to meet the broker who had been noticed by other people, but I missed my family. And while I was debating whether or not I should go, I ended up going, just a bit later than the time that the broker had set. When I arrived, however, there was no broker. He was nowhere to be seen. In my town, it was noticed that I had gone missing and everything turned to chaos. So I could not return.
Instead, I went to a nearby house of my father’s friend and told him everything that had happened, and he risked everything to hide me. And through his help, I was able to contact my father using an illegal Chinese cellphone. I found out then, that the broker I was supposed to meet had been caught by the North Korean authorities. Afterwards, I relocated into the woods to live with my father’s friend’s grandmother for a while, in fear for my safety.
Soon after, my father sent a large sum of money, which I used to buy a new identity. With this new identity, I was able to attend university. It had been 3 years since my family had defected, and I had almost completed my first year in college when a second broker had been sent for me. Something about the second broker made me trust him, and through this I began my escape.
The process usually begins with a broker that leads you to the Tumen River, to another broker who leads you across the river, to a broker who receives you at the Chinese border, to multiple brokers who lead you through China and Laos, to cross the Mekong River. I had met a friend at the Tumen River and we crossed it together. I had been anticipating this moment for years, so I swam across with little trouble.
We safely arrived at a broker’s house in China and I spent the whole night talking with my family on the phone. I thought the years of hardship were over now, and I would finally be able to let out a sigh of relief over all that I had endured. But on the fourth day, the house was attacked by heavyset men in military uniform. They were Chinese guards. I thought that with my family defecting to South Korea without too much hardship, I would be safe as well, once I got to China. But we were all arrested at the house and taken into custody.
In China, when North Korean defectors are arrested, they are sent back to North Korea, where they are either executed or imprisoned with endless torture, which can eventually lead to death. It is also common for pretty girls who are caught to be kept at the prison to provide entertainment for the soldiers, or to be sold into the sex trade in North Korea. Often, the girls sold into the trade become pregnant by men in China and are sent back to North Korea. Here, they have to endure forced abortions. If the baby survives, it is placed faced down in water and strangled to death. Knowing all this, I couldn’t imagine what my fate would be. The friend I crossed with was very pretty and we both feared for our lives in the Chinese prison.
One day, we were brought out of our prison cells and placed in a van. I thought we were finally being sent back to North Korea. The driver asked us “Do you know where you are going?” And in fear we told him we were being sent back. It was then he told us that we were going to where our parents were. To safety. We couldn’t believe it. We hugged each other and cried in happiness. Why was this happening? How was this happening? My father had heard about our being caught by the Chinese authorities, and reached out to NGOs and other organizations that help North Koreans defect. They gathered together and raised money from all over the world, and with a large sum, they were able to bribe the Chinese authorities to let us go. Through the donations of kind strangers, we were able to escape from an unimaginable fate that was waiting for us outside the doors of the Chinese prison.
We crossed from China into Laos, and after entering Thailand, we applied for asylum as refugees. We were transferred from prison to prison, living in small prison cells with Thai people convicted of crimes. Finally, we made it to a refugee camp operated by Thai Immigration. This is where the Korean NIS kept us until we were sent to South Korea. When they showed me the room where I had to stay, I couldn’t believe my eyes. In a giant room that looked like a prison cell, around 500 women were living together, waiting to be sent to South Korea. I stayed in this room with them until it became my turn to come to South Korea.
Once I arrived in South Korea, I was not allowed to see my family right away. North Korean defectors must go through the South Korean NIS to make sure that they are not spies, and then must stay at the Hanawon for two months to learn about South Korean life and culture to help them adjust to South Korean society.
It was then, after completing all of this, that I finally reunited with my family. I had missed them, dreamt about them, and wanted nothing more in my life than to see them again. But it had been years since we last saw each other, and my brother and sister were all grown up. They were both so tall and my brother’s voice had changed. My sister had grown to be a lovely young woman with beautiful, long straight hair. I felt slightly awkward embracing my younger siblings who were now grown adults. But my parents surprised me the most. They both looked younger and healthier. We all experienced an indescribable happiness that all we could do was hold each other and cry. I never wanted to let go.
It had been three very long years since we were able to live together as a family. After wishing for this moment for so long, it felt surreal when it came true. Living in my new home, I found it difficult to wake myself up every morning, in case the sound of my mother cooking in the kitchen, my father in the living room and my siblings talking in the next room was just my imagination. I did not want to wake up from such a beautiful dream. But it wasn’t a dream. It was real. It’s such a given—to be able to live under one roof with your family. To share a meal with them. To be able to talk with them. But to me, these small things that are common for others are blessings. They are gifts in my life that I am thankful for every moment that I breathe.
I am thankful for every moment that I get to live in South Korea. No matter how hard it may be sometimes, I never forget to be thankful. Once I began settling in, I started learning about computers. I had wanted to learn about them so much in North Korea, and now I had the opportunity to do so. I also had the chance to study English in the Philippines, and even backpack my escape route again through Laos and Thailand, only this time safely. To be able to see where I had been not so long ago, but this time as a free person without fear is a feeling that I cannot put into words. I had walked and traveled these countries once, scratched, bruised and tired, being sent from one prison to another, but now I was free.
I was traveling legally to see the world with a South Korean passport in hand. I am free. And I cannot thank enough, the NGOs and the people involved with rescue missions, who work to give people like me a new chance at life. I now work for two NGOs—SLI (which stands for Serving Life International) and LiNK (which stands for Liberty in North Korea). Through groups like them, 26,000 North Korean defectors have found a new life of freedom, like me.
When people hear about North Korea, the images that first come to mind are nuclear weapons and the Kim family’s totalitarian rule. But organizations like the ones I mentioned think of the victims suffering human rights violations, and they work to bring change to the lives of North Koreans, so that they can live a free life without fear. There are currently over 150,000 North Koreans in detention and labor camps, endlessly tortured and perishing through hunger as I speak. The human rights violations that they suffer are not just the problems of Korea; but human rights violations that should receive the attention and assistance of the international community.
As I stand before you here in India, I know change can happen. I stand here as a testimony to that. Looking back on my journey from my life in North Korea to my life here today, I know that a life of freedom can happen for them, too. So the next time you think of North Korea, please think of the North Korean people not as a repressed people of a totalitarian regime from a country possessing nuclear weapons, but as people just like you and me, who deserve a chance to live in freedom as all people should. I believe that a day will come, when they can all be free, see how beautiful life can be, and experience how much love people have for one another. I believe that day will come, because I am living it every day.
I know my speech has gone on a little longer than expected. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask me. Thank you for listening and for giving me this chance to tell you my story.