North Korean Refugee Stories: Meet Joo Ri
Joo Ri never knew what it felt like to be envious of others as a child. Growing up in Pyongyang, daughter to a supervisor at the Ministry of Industry, she had no idea that life could be filled with anything but laughter and happy memories. Even after losing her parents at an early age, her father's name and position were enough to keep her going to the best schools and within the right circles in Pyongyang. After falling in love right after completing her army duty, she decided to get married and move with her husband back to his hometown near the North Korea-China border. Even though she was leaving her home, she felt it a small sacrifice to be with the person she loved.
At first, Joo Ri did not mind that life outside Pyongyang was less glamorous. All she wanted was to care for her family and lead a happy life. However, adversity and hardship started to wash over her in slow, steady waves. By the time she gave birth to her second child, her family was chronically short of food and resources. Thus, Joo Ri decided to obtain traveling passes to Pyongyang and sell goods on the route to and from her home. While this was able to sustain a life for her and her family, she started to feel trapped, suffocated, and helpless. The life she had led in Pyongyang was nothing but a memory.
After losing her husband, Joo Ri realized that she could not take living under such bleak oppression any longer. In the dead of night, she was successfully able to sneak through the border into China. Immediately after crossing, she had to go into hiding for months before eventually being sold as a bride to a Chinese man. Unable to let her guard down, she lived in constant fear and anxiety, restricted to her home, until one day the local police conducted a raid where she was caught, detained, and immediately repatriated to North Korea.
Joo Ri was sentenced to over a year in a forced labor camp where she was barely fed, and forced to work more than half the day without rest. Experiencing such ruthless treatment only made her crave freedom more, and immediately after being released, she took to the border again. This time, however, she was unsuccessful. She was caught attempting to cross the border and sentenced to more than 3 years in a re-education camp.
There, she was stripped of her name, hit, slapped, punched, beat, kicked, hung by her wrists from the ceiling, and pushed into a water well, the water level sitting over her knees, where she was forced to stay for a month. In order to survive, she ate bugs and leaves, but she still lost all of her hair and all but one of her top teeth due to starvation.
After being released from the re-education camp, Joo Ri went back to her hometown so she could recuperate and gain back her strength. During this time she had more than seven people, from friends to secret police, spying on her at any given time. Unable to give up the desire for happiness, but now fueled by anger and resentment for the people who had done so much wrong to her, Joo Ri snuck out in the middle of the night, making her sixth attempt to cross the border. This time, she was able to make it into China, and by a stroke of luck, connected with LiNK's network.
Joo Ri is overjoyed to start her new life in South Korea. Even though she suffered so much, she has not lost her sense of compassion, and hopes to work with resettled North Korean children and elderly people. She has also started writing a memoir depicting her life.
Joo Ri hopes to bring light to the situation in North Korea and advocate for the friends and family she left behind.
Thank you for helping supply the funds for Joo Ri’s rescue. Your efforts have changed her life and have provided the opportunity for her to enjoy her new liberty.
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.