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Joy's Story: Part 1 - Growing Up in North Korea

December 17, 2019
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I didn’t have a dream for my future when I was a child because my family was just trying to survive. My dad ran a farm, but one day the regime took all of his property. We had to start illegally selling wood to make money. We were always worried that we would get caught. We lived in constant fear and anxiety.

I remember not being able to eat for two days. My parents went into the mountains to find grass to boil and eat. Once we couldn't find grass, so my dad and I went to someone's cornfield. He carried me on his back and, when we got there, we pretended that I had to pee so I could go into the field and eat the unripe corn.

Eventually things got too hard for my mom, so she divorced my dad and left us. Life was so hard back then.

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Because we never had enough money, there were a lot of arguments between my dad and my stepmom. There were other issues too—my sister’s husband tried to rape me. My father and stepmother also tried to marry me off when I was a teenager. I understood that they couldn’t keep taking care of me because of the economic situation, but I didn’t want to get married. When they set up a meeting with a prospective partner, I didn’t go but lied to my parents that I had and didn’t like him at all, mentioning a lot of bad things about the guy although I had never met him. I felt bad for him, but I had to do that because I didn’t want to get married.

Eventually, I decided to leave for China, hoping that I would have a better life there. I didn’t want to go to South Korea at the time because I heard a lot of rumors about how difficult living there was for North Korean people. Instead, I wanted to find an old Chinese couple, like my grandma and grandpa, who would let me live with them in exchange for taking care of them. I was naive.

I cried a lot at the idea of leaving my family and friends. I couldn’t tell my family that I was going to China, but I did tell some of my close friends. I asked them to give my goodbye letters to my family. I felt so apologetic to my father that I didn’t do much for him as his daughter. Before then I didn’t like my father because, after the regime took away his farm, he started drinking a lot and not taking care of our family, yet I just couldn’t help feeling heartbroken leaving him. I also got to spend 3 days with my mom who lived far away from my family before I went to China. At the time I got to have a lot of conversations that brought us a lot of healing and reconciliation.

I wasn’t sure if I would see my family again because of the possibility of getting caught while escaping to China. Before I left, I got some opium and carried it underneath the collar of my shirt so I could take it to kill myself in case I got caught.

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I found a broker who gave money to the border guards so they didn’t patrol when I was supposed to cross the Tumen river. When I got to the middle of the river I felt that the ice was quite thin so I had to crawl to cross the rest of the river that was covered by snow. I didn’t realize that moment but later after I arrived I realized that my feet got so swollen because they got frozen from crawling the river in the snow. I couldn’t feel my feet for a while.

Continue reading Part 2 of Joy's story, focused on her time spent hiding in China.

You can support North Koreans like Joy by donating to our work. To date, we have helped over 1200 North Korean refugees reach freedom and safety through rescues. Learn how you can help.

A North Korean Father Risks Everything for Family | Doohyun’s Story

April 18, 2024

I lived in North Korea for over 20 years, and for much of that time, I believed my life was normal. I grew up in a big city by the river. When the wind blew, I could smell the water on the breeze, and on holidays, I played along the banks with my friends.

The river ran along the border between North Korea and China. I could see across the water into a different world–one where cars lined the streets, and buildings stretched high into the sky.

But I didn’t realize that life should be different, until the day they took my father away.

My father was a great businessman. He provided for our family despite being forcibly discharged from the military when his Minister of Defense was executed by Kim Il Sung. Labeled as a “traitor,” he was banned from decent jobs and opportunities. 

Still, my father was a clever man and found success within the private market system that many North Koreans rely on to survive. Until one day, the police came to investigate him.

Without reason or warning, my father was arrested and imprisoned. They tortured him for a year. When he was released, my father weighed only 66 pounds.

Even after surviving the unimaginable, he was defiant. He wrote 20 pages of complaints to the Central Party about the human rights abuses he endured. My family was terrified of the consequences, but we couldn’t stop him. He fought for his voice to be heard.

On a warm Spring day, a Mercedes-Benz, license plate number 216, arrived at our home. February 16th was Kim Jong Il’s birthday, and cars with this number were only given to his closest aides. My father spoke with the man for hours about his letter. The man apologized and promised something like this wouldn’t happen again. This gave us a bit of hope for the future – for the possibility of change.

But the man left for Pyongyang. And then the police returned. I never saw my father again.

For two years, my family and I lived in unknowing agony, receiving no news on my father. Eventually, we heard from my father’s friend, who was a police officer, that he had passed away in prison. 

At the very least, we wanted to send him off properly, so we asked that same friend how we could get my father’s body. Three days later, he returned. He told us they would not return my father’s body. My father had been sentenced to eight years in prison. He’d passed away after two. He still had six more years to serve – as a dead body. As a corpse.

For the first time I wondered whether this was the way normal people lived.

In 2009 I decided to escape from North Korea. Life had become near impossible for me after my father’s death, and I continued to face discrimination due to our family’s status in society.

By then, I had been married to my wife, Jiyeon, for two years. Most of our relationship before marriage was through the phone, because we lived far apart, and traveling in North Korea is difficult. So we called each other every night and talked for hours. 

Now, I didn’t know if I was going somewhere she would never be able to reach. I told her it was a business trip. Two weeks. I’ll just be gone for two weeks

She still cried at the train station, thinking about those two weeks. I couldn’t cry with her because then she would know the truth. So I boarded the train without a word, and watched it take me away from her.

From the moment I escaped North Korea, it felt like I was being chased by a grim reaper. There were multiple close-calls where I felt death breathing down my neck.

I was once hiding in a corn field near the Chinese border. Lying on my stomach, I watched soldiers patrol the area when suddenly, one of them walked towards me. It was too late to run or hide. 

I had brought poison with me in case something like this happened - I knew it would be better to kill myself rather than be captured. But as I prepared to take the poison, I thought of my wife. I thought about how she would never know what happened to me.

In that moment of sheer terror, I heard the sound of water. The soldier stood right beside me but he hadn’t seen me. He had only walked over to relieve himself. For the next few minutes, I couldn’t move. The soldier had left, but my body held onto the terror of that moment. I remained hunched and hurried for the rest of the journey.

Eventually, I made it safely to South Korea. I started working as soon as possible – 12 hour days to pay back the broker fee, and save up money for my wife’s escape. My schedule was just working and sleeping, working and sleeping. It was hard, but for the first time in a long time, I had hope.

I was able to find a broker who put me in contact with my wife. It had been ten months since I’d defected at that point – ten months of her not knowing whether I was dead or alive. The call couldn’t be made in the city because the signal could be intercepted, so my wife and the broker hiked to the top of a mountain.

When we heard each other’s voices again, all we could do was cry. But we didn’t have much time, and so I asked her, you’re coming, right

She said she was.

On December 27th, 2011, Jiyeon crossed the river to escape North Korea on the same route that I took.

As soon as my wife arrived in South Korea, I went to meet her. I was so excited. I couldn’t stop crying. When my wife came into the room, she was crying too – but do you know what’s the first thing she did when she saw me?

She punched me – crying, calling me a liar. And I deserved it.

We live in Utah now with our two beautiful sons. We go fishing, camping, and enjoy the outdoors together. Every time I see them, I realize I’m living in a different world, one where we can finally dream and decide our own future.

This is the life I’ve made for my children. This is the life my father envisioned for me and for all North Koreans when he made his act of defiance. My father died fighting for his voice to be heard – and now, finally, he’ll be heard by the world.

Doohyun risked everything to create a future where his family could live together in freedom. Their story isn’t unique - there are many more North Koreans waiting and hoping for the day when they can reunite with loved ones. Help make freedom part of every North Korean’s story.

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Since resettling in the United States, Doohyun has completed his undergraduate studies and now works for a North Korean human rights organization. He considers helping the North Korean people to be his life’s mission, continuing his father’s legacy.

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