Radio Free Asia on May 3, 2013, reported on North Korean defector Jo Jin Hye, who lives outside Washington DC. Excerpts below:

…she has…become one of the United States’ leading activists for human rights in North Korea, her native country. She is called night and day by North Koreans half a world away in desperate need of advice, contacts, or money.

“Sometimes,” she says, “I am on the phone from 1:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m., when defectors are attempting an escape.”

These defectors are beginning a journey that Jo Jin Hye, now 25, began at age 10 with her mother Han Song Hwa and younger sister Jo Eun Hye, also called Grace Jo, in 1998 amid a famine in North Korea’s Hamgyeong Province, on the Chinese border.

Their escape followed the loss of half their family. Jo Jin Hye’s grandmother and newborn brother died of starvation, her older sister disappeared after setting out for China in search of food, and her father was tortured by security agents after crossing the border and bringing back a sack of rice. He died while in prison.

The family were labeled “anti-state traitors” for entering China, and police and men from the Bowibu, the National Security Agency, threatened to burn down their house if they did not leave their village.

Once in China, Han and her daughters struggled to survive and evade deportation back to North Korea. China ignores international law prohibiting the forced repatriation of refugees, presumably fearing that if they accept any North Koreans, this will trigger a flood.

The Jo-Han family spent much of the next 10 years living as fugitives in China.

“We kept getting arrested, separated, and united again,” Jo Jin Hye said. “We … waited for each other in places where we knew we could establish contact.”

They were repeatedly caught, jailed, and sent back to North Korea, where they were sometimes imprisoned and tortured.

“I was slapped until my face was swollen,” said Jo Jin Hye. “They pulled my hair so hard that my head was half-bald.”

Once she became a teenager, Jo Jin Hye was on her own for part of the time. She turned for help to the friends of people she got to know in North Korean prisons and labor camps.

Eventually the family was befriended by Pastor Philli Buck, a Christian missionary who was Korean-American. At one point he looked after them for a year.

Both sisters became fluent in Chinese, and Grace Jo got a little schooling. But like her mother, Jo Jin Hye—being older—always had to work. She would earn money in one restaurant until the police came to check papers, and would then run away to find work at another.

From time to time, she would find her mother and Grace Jo and give them some of her wages.

The family survived by their wits until they were aided by the underground railroad that smuggles North Korean refugees from China to welcoming countries.

In 2006, after Han and her daughters had been repatriated once again to North Korea and were in Bowibu custody, they expected to be publicly executed or sent to a camp for political prisoners after admitting they were Christians, knew American missionaries, and had helped other defectors try to reach South Korea.

Pastor Buck quickly raised U.S. $10,000 from American congregations and offered it through brokers to Bowibu agents for the family’s freedom. As a result, the three were charged with misdemeanors rather than serious crimes, and after promising high-level Bowibu officers they would remain in North Korea, they were released.

They had no intention of keeping their promise.

Pastor Buck then arranged for brokers to get them out of North Korea and to Beijing…. Finally, after more than a year, they were granted asylum in the United States.

Two months after they arrived, Jo Jin Hye and other refugees were invited to meet with then President George W. Bush. She then staged a hunger strike in front of the Chinese embassy in Washington to protest Beijing’s forced repatriation of North Korean refugees.

After 16 days, she was hospitalized. Her strike did help draw attention to the issue, but China’s policy did not change.

Both financially and culturally, observers agree, the family has fared unusually well in comparison with the other 150 or so North Koreans living in the United States.

Greg Scarlatoiu, director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, based in Washington, cites their hard work, friendly personalities, and good fortune in having made “the right connections here.”

Their mentor, Pastor Heemoon Lee, also notes that unlike most North Koreans, who come alone, they had the great advantage of having arrived together as a family. Moreover, Lee adds, their deep Christian faith has bolstered them and helped connect them to the Korean-American community.

Living underground in China for so many years no doubt also schooled them in how to deal with adversity.

Jo Jin Hye did something unusual while chasing the American dream—she founded a small nonprofit organization called NKUS to help other North Koreans escape and to support fellow refugees in the United States.

Her mother and sister pitch in, and NKUS now has more than a dozen supporters: Americans, Koreans, and nine other defectors.

Through NKUS, the family has already been instrumental in helping at least six defectors in China reach a third country. NKUS also recently sponsored a church benefit concert in a Washington suburb that drew 300 people and raised $3,000.

The proceeds were intended to smuggle a female defector’s two nephews out of North Korea before they could be sent to prison as a punishment for her defection. The concert featured North Korean pianist Kim Cheol Woong, who defected in 2001.

Outspoken and blunt, they are determined that others know what is happening to the people of North Korea. Few others in the United States can speak about that firsthand.


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