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Escaping North Korea: Grace Jo's Story

Grace Jo shared her story with us, detailing the struggles of North Korean refugees living in the United States and explaining how refugees contribute to freedom in North Korea.

Article by Chris Walsh November 28, 2016 //   5 minute read

Grace Jo grew up under North Korea’s communist dictatorship.  After witnessing several family members starve to death, she escaped to China with her mother and sister.  In 2008, Grace came to the United States where she and her sister, Jinhye, founded a nonprofit that supports North Korean refugees. Grace is in Dallas to participate in the Bush Institute’s Forum on Freedom in North Korea.  She sat down with us to answer a few questions about her story, the struggles of North Korean refugees living in the United States, and how refugees contribute to freedom in North Korea.

Why did you leave North Korea and come to the United States?

Because I wanted to live like a human being. In my country, we had no food to eat, no freedom, and no opportunities for young people. I could not breathe freely and had to endure threats to my life all the time. I lost my father, grandmother, and two younger brothers to hunger. I almost died of starvation. I also witnessed torture and hardship through imprisonment when I was forcibly sent back to North Korea from China many times. Those prison guards are inhuman and seemed like monsters to me. They don't have any proper laws, justice, or humanitarian concept.

What challenges do North Korean refugees living in the United States experience? How can the U.S. government and others help them?

I remember we got 8 months assistance after coming to the United States, such as food stamps and medical care. Even though we had some assistance from the government we still had a lot of difficulties. First, learning a new language, as well as making choices about everything without proper guidance, was very challenging for us.

Second, as a North Korean refugee I wasn't used to making choices by myself or for the family until I came to the United States. So, it was very difficult to handle all the bills and make decisions about our life. Lastly, because we didn't have a proper education, my sister and I had a hard time finding a job to earn money to help our sick mom and pay all the bills for many years. Our income was very low so we had to work two or three jobs to earn money. Therefore, as a high school student I could not complete my education on time and ended up delaying it.  As a result, young North Koreans face difficulties in the United States pursuing their education and goals.

People might say that immigrants from other countries also face similar difficulties, and they all succeed in resettlement and live freely in the United States. I agree, but I would like to emphasize that North Koreans are brainwashed by the communist regime [in North Korea] and it is very hard to change all at once. Also, people are trained to obey commands since they are able to walk as children. So, from a psychological perspective, North Koreans need more help in guidance and support. 

How do North Korean refugees living in free societies help their people inside North Korea? 

Usually, daughters and sons will send money to their remaining family members in North Korea and help them to survive. In other ways, they will bribe brokers to rescue their family members from North Korea. Not all North Koreans have the opportunity to help family members in North Korea, but most try their best. Those who don't have family members in North Korea such as my sister and myself might try to be human rights advocates and let people around the world know about the tyranny and suffering that goes on there.

Being an advocate is not easy because some of us get threats from the North Korean government, or they will record our name on their black list, for example.  Although we live in a free society, advocates often live in fear and worry. Some of us will be criticized by North Korean refugees and also have friendships with defector groups broken simply because we are public figures and human rights advocates. Other North Korean refugees worry about their family members’ safety in North Korea because of our friendships. It is very sad and heart breaking, but it is a reality for North Korean defectors who are living in free societies.