Escaping North Korea and Finding Freedom

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.

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 one of eight recipients of the North Korea Freedom Scholarship. The scholarship supports escapees pursuing a range of educational opportunities at a variety of post-secondary institutions, including traditional four-year university programs, community colleges, and trade and vocational schools. Below is Grace’s story.

A portion of this interview was originally shared in November 2016 and was titled “Escaping North Korea: Grace Jo’s story.” The original interview was conducted by Chris Walsh. Bush Institute Human Freedom intern Jeff Kim conducted the second interview.

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.

Were you able to receive an education in North Korea? If so, what was your experience like?

Because I escaped when I was 7 years old, I have never had a chance to receive a proper education from North Korea. However, I attended elementary school in China until the third grade when I was 13 years old. After several times of repatriation, I wasn’t able to continue my education in China because I did not have any legal documents. I pursued high school when I was 16 years old in America from 2008 to 2015. Since 2016, I registered in a nearby community college and am attending school for an associate degree. 

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.

What are you studying now and why did you decided on that degree?

Currently, I am studying general education for an associate’s degree so that I can transfer to a university to obtain a Bachelor in Science degree. I am hoping to become a dentist. I chose this route because I have been working as a certified dental assistant in a private dental office. I am hoping to treat North Korean people in the future when communism dies in North Korea. 

Why is getting an education important to you?

Education is important to me because I believe that education has the power to transform societies. I also believe that obtaining an education and becoming a professional is the way for me to stabilize my family and eventually serve the people of North Korea. 

Jeff Kim is a Human Freedom Initiative intern.