From North Korea to the Oval Office: A North Korean Defector Advocates for Religious Freedom
This past summer, you may have spotted Ill Yong Joo, a North Korean activist, at the White House meeting with the President. Ill Yong was a LiNK Advocacy Fellow last year! The LiNK Advocacy Fellows program prepares and empowers the next generation of North Korean leaders, advocates, and analysts on this issue. Ill Yong took what he learned during his time at LiNK and traveled to the White House to advocate for the North Korean people. During his trip to the White House, he advocated for the North Korean people’s religious freedom as part of the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by the U.S. State Department.Interview edited for clarity and length.
What are you doing right now?
Ill Yong: Right now, I’m a senior studying Political Science and International Relations at Korea University. I also work for ‘One King, One Korea’ which is a missionary group for North Koreans. My main goal is to focus on working to improve North Korea’s situation and following the path that God has prepared for me.
You were a LiNK Advocacy Fellow last year.
What did that experience mean to you?
Ill Yong: LiNK AF was like a “booster” for me. I knew that I wanted to do something for my friends in North Korea, but I wasn't sure what or how to take action. And if I did do something, I didn’t know if I could influence or make an impact for the people. But through the Advocacy Fellows program, I became sure of my identity as an advocate for the North Korean people.When I toured the U.S. as an Advocacy Fellow and I saw the way American young people hung onto every word of my story, I realized that I had to continue doing this work. I was sure of it. Because this experience helped me move forward towards this dream, I like to say that being an AF in a word was a “booster” for me.
What was the experience going to the White House like?
Ill Yong: It was an honor and I was grateful for the experience. However, my heart was heavy because I carried the message of the pain of North Koreans.
I was there because of the heartbreaking pain and stories of my people.
It was a pity I could only speak to President Trump for a moment, but I hope that even though it was short, my message moved President Trump's heart. I pray that the work or policy the President carries out will not be for the North Korean regime, but for the lives of the North Korean people.
What message did you want to give to the President?
Ill Yong: I wanted to inform him about the situation of my people being persecuted for religious reasons in North Korea. I wanted him to know that not only my family but many other people, especially Christians, are oppressed for religious reasons.Many people judge North Korea based on only Kim Jong-Un, but I want to tell everyone that within North Korea, the North Korean people want freedom, have achieved some freedom on their own, and now we must empower their restoration of freedom.
Want to learn more about Ill Yong’s journey from a small North Korean farming village to studying to become a human rights lawyer? Watch our latest video interview with him.
A North Korean Defector’s Nine Year Journey to Freedom | Eunju’s Story
I didn’t know I was hungry until I was eight years old. Growing up, I had no concept of whether my hometown was wealthy or poor. Then when the great famine struck in the mid-90s, more people died in our city than anywhere else in the country.
That’s when I realized “Oh, this is the most difficult place to live in North Korea.”
I was born in the city of Eundok, North Hamgyong Province. Before that it was called Aoji, a destitute place infamous for its coal mines, where South Korean prisoners of war were sent to work.
In the middle of a long famine, people lose all sense of humanity. You couldn’t survive without dirtying your hands. My father was a kindhearted person, the type that was unable to hurt anyone. But towards the end, hunger drove him to steal from our own house.
On my first day of middle school, I couldn’t find my new backpack anywhere. It turns out that my dad had taken it to the Jangmadang, traded it for food, and eaten it by himself. In the end, he still died from starvation, and my mom, my sister, and I were left to fend for ourselves.
We heard that if we went to China, we could eat all the candy we wanted. With that one piece of information, my mom said she’d rather get shot crossing the Tumen river than starve in North Korea.
It was mid-February in 1999, during the bitter cold winter. The water was frozen solid and stretched over 100 meters across. My mom went first, followed by my sister, and I was in the very back. Maybe it was because I was anxious, but my shoes felt so slippery and I kept falling over as they went farther and farther ahead. We heard that soldiers would shoot anyone who tried to cross the river. But this was our only chance at survival.
My mind was racing, “What if I’m left behind and get caught?” My mom and sister probably feared the same thing.
We encountered a tributary that wasn’t frozen all the way, so my mom waited and had me go first because I was the lightest. A few steps in, the ice broke and I fell into the piercing cold water. None of us knew how to swim. At that moment, I really thought it was the end. But then my feet hit the ground. We had made it to the other side.
Not long after we had crossed into China, a Korean-speaking woman came up to us. She invited us to her house and gave us over a dozen boiled eggs, more food than we had seen in years. In North Korea, when my sister and I had a field trip for school, my mom would cut one boiled egg and give each of us half in our lunch box. To have this much at once was a true luxury. For the first time in a long while, we dared to have some hope.
But then my mom was sold off to a Chinese man. The fortunate thing was that even though my sister and I were 16 and 14 years old, we were so short that people asked if we were 7 or 8. They couldn’t sell us separately, so we were sent together with our mom.
We had been sold for 2000 yuan. When we wanted to leave, the man told us to pay him back. We worked in his house and on his farm but of course we never saw a penny. For three years, we lived in confinement, and my little brother was born.
On a quiet night before my brother was even a year old, Chinese police came to the house in the dark, knocked on the door, and arrested us.
When North Koreans get caught, sometimes they’ll roll up their money and eat it or hide it, but we didn’t have anything. We were taken back across the border with just our clothes. It’s well known that there’s a physical exam to look for hidden money. In a way, you shouldn’t even feel a basic sense of shame as a woman and as a human being. If you cry or plead for mercy, you’ll get beaten up. You cannot question them at all.
With so many people in North Korea dying of starvation, names were removed from the family register after three years without any news. We had already been declared dead. There were two minors and an adult, but our identities couldn’t be confirmed. At the time they couldn’t keep minors in prison without a ruling from the court, so we were entrusted to another person from our hometown. No one wanted extra mouths to feed, so he just let us go.
We went straight to the Tumen river and in 2002, we escaped again.
I had enough food when I was in China. Even dogs and pigs ate rice and corn. But we lived looking over our shoulders, in constant fear of the police.
When we heard about life in South Korea, where our safety and identities would be guaranteed, we decided to defect once more. We were introduced to a broker, gave them some cash upfront, and traveled through Mongolia and the Gobi Desert.
On September 1st, 2006, I arrived at Incheon airport with my mom. My sister joined us in South Korea in 2008. Nine years after first crossing the Tumen River, we were finally together in freedom.
When I was in China, my only wish was that my mom, sister, and I could sleep together, eat together, and come home from work together. I dreamed that someday we could go to the supermarket and get a whole cart full of things to share. After coming to South Korea, we achieved not only that, but everything we’ve ever wanted.
I co-authored a book about my journey, A Thousand Miles to Freedom, with a foreign journalist named Sebastien Falletti. He interviewed several North Koreans, and I agreed to share my story with him out of a sense of duty. I never thought he’d choose me.
Compared to North Korean defectors who live special lives, I don’t actually dream of being a human rights activist. There are times when I don’t want to share anymore and I feel like I have to repeat myself.
But then I think about my best friend in North Korea. Her name is Sunhwa and I don’t think she’s here yet. I imagine that she would want to live like me — to attend college, pave her own way, and explore the vast world we live in. But she is still stuck in the darkness. Until Sunhwa can live a life of freedom, I feel a sense of responsibility to continue to share.
When I think of North Korea, the dark image of my hometown floods my memories. But I would still like to go back just once and visit my dad’s grave. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that he was also a victim of the North Korean regime. I have hope that in this lifetime, North Korea will open up. I’ll return with my mom and my sister, and together we’ll visit my dad’s resting place and prepare a huge meal for him.
For North Koreans to share their stories with audiences around the world, retelling and reliving some of the most harrowing experiences, is an act of exceptional courage. They’re working towards the day when others no longer have to go through the same painful experiences.
You can help rescue more North Korean refugees and support them as they begin their new lives in freedom.