Interview: In conversation with a North Korean refugee in America

Tuesday 4th June, 2013

A North Korean refugee in America works to raise awareness about her home country

North Korean defectors often say that the most arduous part of leaving is the fear of repatriation. We meet a women who was repatriated four times, before succeeding on her fifth try.

Jo Jin-hye, who finally made it to the United States in 2008, currently lives in Virginia. When we met with her in South Korea, she said that it wouldn’t sink in that she has at last set foot on South Korean soil.


When did you defect?

My family’s first attempt was in 1998, when I was 10 years old. After that initial attempt failed, we tried several more times. I was repatriated four times. But in 2008, with the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act in the United States, I was able to obtain refugee status.

You must have experienced so much over the course of  your four repatriations.

I can remember all four as if it were yesterday. Every time we were repatriated, my family did its best to cope with each setback as it occurred, and we negotiated our release by bribing officials in the security department.

The first time we were repatriated, we pretended that we had only gone to gather foodstuff. The other three times, we were lucky and encountered relatively decent security officials who let us off lightly.

When bribing a security official, we couldn’t give him all we had, as we wouldn’t have anything left to bribe the next official we came up against. So we planned in advance by dividing up the money and wrapping it in plastic.

When we were caught, we swallowed the plastic-wrapped money whole and kept it in our stomachs. You may not believe it, but this is our family’s experience. We rolled the bills as small as we could and wrapped them tightly in plastic, and when we thought we would be captured, we quickly swallowed it.

Why did you choose to settle in the United States?

We didn’t set out to choose the United States. We tried several times to go to South Korea but failed. Once, we were in inner Mongolia on our way to South Korea and we were caught.

Right around our third escape attempt, the 6.15 North-South Joint Declaration took place and relations between the two Koreas improved. I resented that South Korea had good relations with North Korea, and resolved to go to a different country.

Because I’d barely received any formal education in North Korea, I had a greedy appetite for education. While we were on the run in China, I saw a programme set in the U.S. on television. What struck me was that a gray-haired grandmother was reading and studying. After seeing that, I said to myself, “The United States is a place where even someone with limited education like me could study and learn.”  I felt hopeful.

So we decided to go to the U.S. I so wanted to step foot on South Korean soil, but the situation didn’t turn out the way we expected. But we kept hoping that we could visit South Korea one day, when reunification happened.

What were your first impressions of the U.S. when you arrived?

There is a pastor who helped my family tremendously. He gave us a ride and I thought he was taking us to the countryside. I thought this because we were surrounded by forest.

But even after we arrived in Seattle, everywhere was dense with trees. That’s when I realized that there were many forests in the U.S. I became mesmerized by the American forests. Maybe it was because I was used to North Korea where the landscape was barren and any wood we could find was used for fuel.

Also, I noticed that there were many houses built of wood in the U.S. In North Korea, even concrete buildings are broken into and robbed, so I became worried about whether the wooden houses in the U.S. were safe.

However, a local assured me that there was no need to worry about robbery, even in wooden houses.

Was there anything that moved you about the U.S.?

When I first arrived, I knew no English. Wherever I went, I spoke with hesitation and had to ask questions all the time. But no one made fun of me. I was moved by this very much.

I was amazed by how friendly people were and how they were considerate of other people’s feelings. They’d smile and say “Hi!” when they first met you – at first I thought they were crazy. Also, I was shocked at how friendly the police could be, which is very different from the severity of North Korean security officials.

How does the U.S. help North Korean refugees?

For settling in, we receive 300 dollars cash, 150 dollars worth of food stamps and medical insurance, which all stops after 8 months.

At first, I earned money by giving testimonies at local churches. But one day, I thought, “I need to grow the strength to be self-reliant.” I began working a job, but while eking out a meager living for two years, there were even times I though I had come here in vain.

After some time had passed, though, these times of suffering became memories. In South Korea, there’s a lot of entitlements in place for defectors, but in the U.S., the individual has to make the effort and try to establish herself.

Would you recommend that other defectors should head to the U.S.?

In the U.S., there are many private companies. If you are a person with a lot of drive, there are opportunities to succeed. However, older people have had a much harder time settling in.

It depends on the person, of course, but if possible, I think I would recommend settling in South Korea. There is no language barrier, and more than anything else, we are the same people.

Tell us a little about NKUS.

Of the 16 members, 9 are defectors. The remaining seven are U.S. citizens who have an interest in doing work for North Korea. One of them is a lawyer.

What role does NKUS play?

We try to inform Americans about what’s really happening in North Korea. Also, there are defectors trying to settle in the U.S. who have a lot of trouble trying to send money back to North Korea, and there are student defectors who are struggling in their studies and having difficulties settling in. We are in charge of supporting all of these defectors in the U.S.

Where does your funding come from?

We make income from participating in traditional food bazaars, Korean festivals and other events. Also, individuals who are part of the organization help defectors out of their own pockets. There is no money to support the organization. Our operations are entirely dependent on the personal funds of those interested in human rights in North Korea.

After the North Korean Human Rights Act was passed in the U.S., isn’t there aid you can receive from the government?

If aid came from the government, the organization would degenerate into a type of livelihood, which would lead to problems.We don’t want that.

What level of interest does American society have in North Korean human rights?

We are surprised by the reactions to our talks. When we give a talk about human rights in North Korea, there are people who cry. When Americans are moved by our talks, they translate that into action. Slowly but surely, I am seeing American society have a greater interest.

There was a human rights group at every college on our tour. These groups are interested in human rights in North Korea. I’ve even had one student say, “I searched for Korea online because of my interest in South Korean idols, and North Korea came up as a result.”

They say they don’t understand why South Korea is living so well, and North Korea is starving. They seem to have a tremendous interest in human rights in North Korea.

What are your plans for the future?

Refugees need support in order to make the transition successfully. Currently, churches are their main source of support in the U.S., and I want to build more solidarity with the churches. I am also in the middle of putting a guide together for settling in.

How do you feel about coming to South Korea?

When I was on the plane, the thought of coming back home made my heart race. I am so grateful that my homeland is such an impressive place. Had both Koreas, North and South, been poor, I would have felt awful. I am just thankful that South Korea has done well, and this is wonderful, for us.

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