What It’s Like to Escape From North Korea

Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

“We tried our best to live in our country,” Grace Jo says. “We tried so many different ways, and we tried our best to survive. But there was no way to survive there.”

“There” is North Korea, and Jo is one of just a thousand or so who flee each year from perhaps the most sealed-off nation on Earth. Jo, who is 26, fled during the reign of Kim Jong-il with her mother and sister. It took her three tries — a decade from the first time she crossed the Tumen River into China, sitting inside her mom’s backpack, to her arrival in the United States as a legal refugee, around 2008. An orphanage shelter, a detention center, and forced labor filled some years in between.

Jo escaped around the early aughts when mass starvation and famine left her family no other choice. But since Kim Jong-un took power in 2012, the number of defectors has dropped dramatically. Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea, a U.S. and South Korean NGO that helps defectors, said many factors are at play — including a somewhat improving situation within North Korea and a Chinese security crackdown under President Xi Jinping.

Park said tightened security may actually be an unintended consequence of Chinese pressure on North Korea, which the U.S. and the Trump administration have been aggressively pushing. “China has not gone as far as America wants, but they’ve gone pretty far,” Park said of the economic pressure. “It’s really significant in terms of their relationship over the last few years.” The border crackdown, Park explained, sends a subtle message to Pyongyang that China’s still on North Korea’s side. “Letting a lot of North Koreans through would potentially send a signal to the North Korean government that China is really playing along with the Americans, and trying to undermine their state,” he said.

Even as fewer refugees and defectors have fled, the outside world has started to wedge itself into North Korea. Technology has improved, allowing discreet ways to pass along foreign media. Young North Koreans, especially in urban areas, are sneaking in South Korean dramas — which offer a much more compelling narrative than the regime’s propaganda. “It’s the ‘forbidden fruit,’” Park said, “even though the risks are so high.”

How, or if, those small acts of subversion will alter the North Korean regime remain unclear. But they are at least reminders that nearly 25 million people are struggling, and surviving, every day in North Korea. The media fascination with the sheer strangeness and brutality of the regime, Joseph Kim, a 27-year-old defector from New York explained, often overshadows the humanity of the North Korean people.

Daily Intelligencer spoke with five North Korean defectors and refugees to better understand what life is like under the Kim regime, now in its third generation. Most, like both Jo and Kim, escaped out of desperation. Stay and die; leave, and maybe survive. They are critical and clear-eyed in their assessment of North Korea, but they are not ready to abandon their birthplace. “It’s a place I want to be good,” Kim said. “It’s home.”

Lee Seongmin, 30

Lee fled from North Korea to China in 2009. He arrived in South Korea via Laos in 2010, where he lived with his mother and sister, activist Hyeonseo Lee. Lee came to the United States in January 2016, and he is studying political science at Columbia University in New York City.

My house was located on the border with China. I didn’t know much about China. In school, we learned only about the glorious socialist system in North Korea. Whenever I saw China just across the Yalu River, I started having curiosity because the Chinese side is super bright at night. The North Korean side is completely dark. There is no electricity at all.

So during the famine, around 1998, I started having curiosities about China. Living on the border, once the winter comes, the river becomes frozen perfectly. It becomes like the highway. Once the border river is frozen, Chinese kids and the North Korean kids, they are crossing over the river and meeting where security is weak. One time, I got a Chinese chocolate. I hadn’t tried it before, that kind of flavor in North Korea. Then I started going to a kid’s house, and his mom gave me chocolate and cookies, that kind of thing.

I realized there was a business opportunity. So I started engaging in a cross-border business and started sneaking into China at night, making money to support my family. I bought items in the North Korean market, and I sold them in China with an added margin. I would buy Chinese items like grain or cigarettes or saccharin and other kinds of things. Then I smuggled them back to North Korea.

I started sneaking into China at age 13. My mom and I were supporting each other to survive throughout the famine. As the great famine kicked off — the so-called Arduous March — it was all a government-controlled system. But then people started doing market activity. It sounds very grand, but basically, you make something — bread or even noodles or rice. You cook rice, and sell to people in need. That kind of small activity started growing and growing.

As my business opportunities started to build, I knew what North Korea was saying — that North Korea was the paradise country — was not necessarily true. I was able to compare life in North Korea to China. Also around that time, I happened to have the opportunity to watch a South Korean drama. I was quite literally shocked because North Korea always says, “Well, enemy countries like the United States and South Korea are producing a bunch of decadent films to subvert the socialist system of North Korea.” The thing is, as I watched that South Korean movie, I realized there was no criticism of the North Korean system at all. They were describing daily subjects like dating, having coffee, breakups. That’s how I started learning about South Korea, and also, indirectly, the United States.

I went to prison multiple times because of the illegal crossing. I cannot remember how many times; it was a lot. Even though I knew where it was safer to cross, it wasn’t always successful. I was only caught at the North Korean side, not the Chinese side, which is strange because North Korean soldiers do not patrol the border 24/7, unlike the Chinese.

I would be caught by the hidden border guards and then be beaten up and thrown in jail, and then in a detention center. They didn’t send me to a prison camp, I think because I was a minor at that time. Even in a system like North Korea, you have a certain kind of law. I was like 12, 13, and 14. They would release me almost immediately after a few hours. They’d interrogate me, “Why did you go to China? What did you do there?” They’d make me swear I wouldn’t go to China again. Sometimes it wasn’t too serious; it depended on the border guard. As I got older, like 17 or 18, I started making friends with the border guards, so it was safer.

When I was 21 or 22, I started working in an agency operated by the province’s People’s Security bureau — similar to a police department. I wasn’t directly involved in law enforcement, but I was involved in exploiting resources — such as zinc, copper, even wood — and bringing them into trading companies that deal with the Chinese directly. I was in charge of the transportation, like organizing the vehicle and making sure those resources got to a particular destination in time.

In North Korea, if you’re born as a man, you have certain kinds of obligations for military service — a ten-year service. So for my service I decided to work for the police department, it was almost equal to military service. After all, I was trying to maintain my status socially and politically in North Korea. You have no option to leave — somehow you have to commit to survive to maintain faith, so it was almost an inevitable choice for me. If I didn’t defect, I’d probably be still serving in that department.

I was able to see kind of the dark side of the North Korean system. A lot of corruption. The guys at the top positions were sending the money, using their position as a tool to get bribes. Among these high-ranking guys, that’s a common practice in North Korea. Normal people who don’t have power, who don’t have authority, life is harder for them. On the other hand, there are guys who are getting richer and richer. When you compare what’s actually happening on the ground with what the North Korean government actually says in the media, it’s a total lie. It was not paradise.

That was another reason we decided to flee North Korea. That was the only way for our family to live together. I have a sister, who is six years older, who went to China when she was maybe 17, but the Chinese government doesn’t recognize North Koreans as refugees, so my sister went to South Korea first, and she got a South Korean passport, and then she came back to China, to the border area with North Korea, near our home. That’s how we were able to arrange to get across. Also, at the time with my government job, I was conducting border business, so many border guards were my friends. For us, it was relatively easier and safer crossing the border into China.

Park Sang-Hak, who heads a group of North Korean defectors, tears a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un during an anti-North Korea rally outside South Korean government complex in Seoul on September 22, 2017. Photo: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

It was not as easy as I’m saying. It was really risky, and we encountered multiple occasions where we were almost captured by Chinese police. At certain points, around 2000, North Korean defectors were able to go to any South Korean or American embassy in Beijing, but that’s not the case anymore. The Chinese government basically threatened all foreign embassies in Beijing to not accept defectors out of concerns with diplomatic issues with Pyongyang. Nowadays you have to go to other countries like Vietnam or Laos or Cambodia. We went to Laos. We were captured in Laos for illegal entry and were thrown in a prison there. After two months of imprisonment, they handed us over to the embassy in South Korea.

North Korea is well-known to Americans and the world because of its nuclear technology, its nuclear provocations. Whenever I have conversations with American students, the stereotype of North Korea is summarized in three words: Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-un is like the whole image of North Korea. The fact is, there are about 25 million people in North Korea.

Politicians are talking about political issues, and human-rights activists are talking about human-rights aspects only. It’s really important to resolve the human crisis in North Korea. After all, the North Korean system is maintained because of isolation. The North Korean regime has cut off all external information, trying to brainwash its people. This kind of thing is oppressive. You have to deal with it in a holistic way. North Korea is not a problem you can resolve by just attacking one single aspect.

This is what the North Korean regime is most scared about. The real anchor that the North Korean regime relies on for its survival is not a few nuclear weapons, but a system cemented on deception and confinement of its people from the world. I lived in South Korea for a few years and now in the U.S. These experiences naturally allowed me to compare life here to that of my home country. People here believe that individual liberty and human rights are so precious. People travel to nearly any place on the planet if they want, and they freely talk with friends wherever they live. All these concepts are just alien to most North Koreans. But once people learn the value of dignity and rights that you can claim as humans, they will fight for them and become able to set their future on their terms.

Hye-soo*, 20s**

Hye-soo now lives in the United States, but must closely guard her identity for fear of retribution against her family.

It was hard to get over what I had learned for 19 years in North Korea. I always learned America is the enemy country, and American people are the enemy. Even though I was in South Korea for a long time, I still had a lot of prejudice and it was difficult to adjust my mentality. When I came to America — people are very kind, and they’re very friendly. It’s confusing. Confusing in a good way.

I defected before Kim Jong-un became the leader. I’m living with an American host family now, and my North Korean friends, who are also defectors, they are always teasing me, “You’re living with an American family!” But they all realize it’s in a good way. “Are you scared?” they’ll say.

In North Korea, they don’t just call Americans “Americans.” They call them “American bastards” and all these different kinds of names. They show Americans as beasts rather than people. In our imagination, American people have big noses, big eyes. They’re very tall, and their faces look like angry faces. Like, really a beast. [Laughs.] I’m sorry, that is true — I believed it was true.

They taught us the war was started by Americans and South Koreans. It took me three years to believe that North Korea was actually the one to start the Korean War. Every year, North Korea showed a documentary about the Korean War. It was propaganda made very perfectly: On Sunday, June 25, the [North Korean] people were very peaceful and then they became the target of the American enemy. They show very violent images of Americans killing North Koreans. The whole point is so the people don’t forget what the Americans did to the North Korean people. Every year I saw this. I used to think that I will die at the hands of the Americans if war starts again.

All of North Korea is taught a war could begin at any time by the Americans. They prepare all ages. During shooting practice, the targets were American. They aim at an American manikin. I did it, too. It was a requirement to graduate.

The famine started when I was in elementary school. The North Korean people were starving. I saw many people die of hunger. My hometown is a big city, so during the famine many people came to our area. There were a lot of kotjebi, orphaned children who live on the streets.

North Korea used to have a public-distribution system, but during the famine that stopped completely. Many families couldn’t even help the kotjebi because they weren’t even getting their rations. If I went to school or to the market, I would see children picking [food] off the ground. They would go through the trash cans. They would enter into homes and steal food. If they got caught by the homeowner, they could get beaten severely.

I felt very poor at the time, but thankfully, my family was okay. There was so little food in North Korea that for the families like mine that did live well — not well, but decently — we would sometimes gather the rice we had and give it to some of our best friends. People were so hungry they couldn’t go to school, so I would give it to my classmates.

Even the people in the military were so malnourished you could see all their bones. Up to ten soldiers stole from my family. They entered our house at night when we were sleeping. At first, we were very scared, but when my father caught them, he couldn’t even try to hit them or anything because they were just so thin. Like they’re about to die. I wasn’t even scared after I saw them because they looked like they were barely hanging on to life. I thought, That might be my cousin. We gave them a meal and we gave them some food. My father said he would not report them as long as they didn’t come back.

All the nicer homes were broken into. I will tell you simply: My family was lucky because we didn’t starve. The songbun — the social system — is very important. My father was a businessman. So I’m really lucky our songbun was okay.

My father was a businessman, so we had foreign products — a Japanese car and furniture, for example. Even though we were taught North Korea is the best country in the world, when I’m using things from Japan, I know the quality is very good. Stuff from North Korea you use once and throw away.

I was a very good student in North Korea, and I always cleaned the pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.  Because I was in a high level in my classes, I got to read about Kim Il-sung to my classmates every morning, like it’s the Bible. I was so proud.

In a photo taken on July 25, 2013 North Korean schoolchildren walk before the portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il-Sung (top L) and Kim Jong-Il (top R) at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun mausoleum in Pyongyang. Photo: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

The cult of personality was really strong. During Kim Jong-il’s reign, people would say, “I wish I could meet Kim Jong-il before I die.” For me, it would have been like meeting Ryan Gosling. I don’t know what it’s like now, but North Koreans didn’t always blame Kim Jong-un for the abuses of the Inmin Boanbu, the Ministry of People’s Security. They understand the security is under the leadership of the Kim regime, but especially after the famine, people thought, Kim Jong-il is at the top doing good work, but all these people beneath him aren’t doing good work.

But by the time I was in middle school, I thought I couldn’t live in North Korea forever. I already watched a lot of American movies, South Korean dramas, and from India, China, and Japan. I read books from other countries, so I struggled with my future. At school, they’re teaching us the same thing: South Korea is a very poor country. America is bad. North Korea is the best in the world, always. But they’re lying.

In North Korea, there is an underground market. The goods come from a few people who have passports; they go to China and come back, and things start to spread. People make copies of DVDs and sell them on the black market. I got Gone With the Wind. The vendors always said, “Be careful.”

Joseph Kim, 27

Kim escaped North Korea in 2006 after both his mom and sister disappeared. He arrived in the United States in 2007. He is currently a student at Bard College.

I left North Korea because it was time for me to choose life or death. I had nothing to lose.

The great famine began right before I was entering elementary school, so I’ve seen the effects with my own eyes. My father died of starvation when I was 12. My sister went to China and my mom was also going to China, back and forth, and was eventually caught by the government and that left me an orphan and homeless. I didn’t see my mom getting arrested; it was just a story that some of my homeless friends told me on the street. I can’t really validate whether she was really arrested or went to China and never came back.

I survived as a beggar for three years on the street. I begged for food, and sometimes I worked in the coal mines. Over ten hours for a free lunch. The people I worked with knew my age, and even though everyone else had difficulties, they tried to give me the easier jobs. They were trying to protect me.

I didn’t know a lot about the outside world while I was in North Korea. But I heard stories of abundance of food, rice, meats in China from people who went to China and got caught and came back. So I knew, at least, in China it would be a bit easier because people had more food. And I wanted to look for my sister there.

I went to a town that was right next to the Chinese border. I escaped during wintertime, in February. The water of the river that serves as a national border was frozen. I ran over the ice.

Once in China, I started to go to house after house to ask for leftover rice or anything to eat. I wasn’t very successful at the beginning because the Chinese government doesn’t recognize North Korean defectors or refugees — they see us as economic migrants. It is illegal for Chinese citizens to help North Koreans. Even giving them a cup of water could make them subject to huge fines, so there are limits to what the average Chinese person could do. At the same time I was dependent on their help, and a lot were kind and generous. One Chinese woman told me I should go to church for help. I began to learn of these Christian churches, and most of the help I received was from South Korean missionaries in underground churches in China.

Most of the missionaries, they don’t have that much power or money — they just give temporary assistance. But in my case, there was a missionary woman who really wanted to help me out, and she used her networks to find a human-rights organization in America.

I had an option to either go to South Korea or the U.S., and I chose to come to the U.S. It’s a long story, but there was a sense that the U.S. was asking leading questions like, “Why don’t you want to go to South Korea? It’s the same language, heritage, and culture.” To put it simply, I didn’t really like the fact that they were almost telling me where to go, so I decided, I guess, on the opposite of what I was told.

A girl yawns as she watches a propaganda troupe perform a flag-waving routine outside the central railway station in Pyongyang on September 27, 2017. Photo: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Yes, North Korea is a bad place. It’s a place that I’m not proud of, but at the same time, it’s a place that has to be restored, not destroyed. I’m concerned that the more Western society portrays North Korea in the way they do now, people may no longer associate it as a place that needs to be restored. It’s a place I want to be good. It’s home. The reason why I share this story is so that I can go back to North Korea and lead the nation — not to mock North Korea, or to show how bad it is to live there. Because everybody knows that already, or should know, if you spend five minutes online.

I do believe changes will happen. I don’t have evidence, but I do have a faith, mostly because I believe in the North Korean people, my own people, average people who are trying to survive every day. More and more foreign and outside information is being smuggled into North Korea, and I think that helps people to change their perception about the government.  There’s a stark difference  between the regime’s propaganda versus reality. That has really forced people to think. That’s a very bad situation for the government, but a very helpful start for people like me who hope to see a free North Korea.

For example, growing up, I’ve been brainwashed that North Korea is the best country in the world and has nothing to envy. But when I started living and surviving on my own, some of the kids I saw on the street were dying of starvation. As a kid, I didn’t have the ability to raise questions of poverty, or ask, “Is this government good or not?” But I did have to think, “Well, is this the best country?” “Do we still have nothing to envy?”

Reality doesn’t match with the regime’s propaganda: Those are the push-and-pull factors for average North Korean people to think and question the government. There was a movie I’ve seen growing up as a child, which I liked watching a lot. It was basically about the Joseon Dynasty hundreds of years ago, and there were farmers or peasants who were rising up against the kingdom to demand human dignity and basic necessities. After I came to America, I heard that the North Korean government banned that movie because it’s kind of similar to what’s happening in North Korea now. The nobles or the elite, they live a really good life — they give white rice to their dog, when these homeless kids are starving to death on the street. That’s pretty similar to what that movie was about. Now that movie is banned.

Charles Ryu, 22

Ryu first escaped North Korea at 14. His father, who was Chinese, abandoned him and his mother when he was a young child. His mother died of starvation when he was 11. He bounced between relatives and the streets, until one of his half-brothers from his father’s previous relationship helped him escape to China. Ryu was captured and tortured and sent to a prison camp. He fled again, this time for good, at 16. He made it to a detention camp in Southeast Asia, and applied to come to the United States in 2012.

My father left my mother and me to go to China. He abandoned us and he never returned. Before he left, he borrowed so much money from the neighbors that people were coming to our house. They just wanted to get their money back, but my mom didn’t have any money. She just had to tell people, “Maybe a month later, maybe a week later, my husband will come back.”

My mom died of starvation when I was 11. She collapsed, couldn’t walk anymore. She lay in the hospital bed. I had to give her food and basically act the nurse. I couldn’t go to school. She was like a vegetable. I guess she fell into a coma or something like that. And then she never got up and passed away in her bed, without saying any last words.

That was a common struggle and common tragedy in North Korea. My aunt took me in for two years, but she and my uncle hated me. For the most part, it was over food, because they were really struggling to feed their family. Now me, on top of that. Many nights, I got kicked out — not forever, but like a week, two weeks, three months. In freezing weather and summer heat, I had to sleep on the roof of the garage. Or I slept on the stairs in apartment buildings. Or in an empty train. For eating, I sometimes had to steal from people or the black market, called jangmadang.

My aunt forced me to write to my father all the time. She would threaten him, “If he doesn’t send money, she will send me to an orphanage, or she will kick me out, or in the worst case, she’s gonna kill me and chop me up.” My father didn’t have any money, but I guess he didn’t want to lose me, so he sent my stepbrother, who had a passport, from China to North Korea to rescue me when I was 14.

We had a broker, who I guess had a connection with border security. They just say, “One of my clients is gonna try to escape through the river. So would you mind just keeping quiet?” I swam the river.

I was reunited with my father. Life was like heaven in China because I didn’t have to beg for food. I didn’t have to find a place to sleep. I didn’t really worry that much because my father was Chinese, so I thought, Of course, I’ll be Chinese, too. I was going outside and I was meeting people and I was making friends. Nobody was telling me, “Oh, you’re gonna get captured if you go outside.” If somebody had told me that, I wouldn’t have gone outside.

Chinese citizens reported me to the government. They get rewards if they report North Koreans. Maybe one of my friends reported me; I’m not really sure.

First I went through a really high-security interrogation because the North Korean authorities had to find out where I was trying to go and where I was staying in China. They wanted to know if I was trying to escape to South Korea, but I was just living in China with my father. They kept beating me, even though I was telling them the truth. They wanted to hear something different. I mean, I watched a lot of South Korean dramas, but I couldn’t really tell them that. I was just, “In China, I just ate and I just slept, and I went outside, and I’d play video games.” I was only a kid, so they didn’t really try to break my bones.

I was sent to a political labor camp for nine months. A living hell. They fed us 50 corn kernels per meal. Fifty pieces of corn every meal, a total of 150, and they expected us to work 12 hours straight. Every morning we’d get up at 7 a.m., and then we’d go out, eat those 50 kernels, and then go to work. We cut wood, and helped farm outside the camp. Even if you don’t have anything to do, they’d just make us move those bricks from one place to another place. We stop whenever they wanted us to stop.

At the end of the nine months, I was almost dead from malnutrition. I was bones and skin. I was just lying down on the floor of the cell. I couldn’t get up. So they called my stepbrother and they just let me go. I was dead, almost.

I was really halfway to hell. It took me six months recover. But my brother didn’t want to take care of me anymore, so I ended up in coal mines. I wanted to leave, but they fed me well, and they paid me rice. I was getting into a kind of comfort zone. At the same time, I saw a lot of accidents happening. People are losing their arms, legs, and even their life, getting smashed under rocks. So I worked there for a year and a half, and I decided to escape again in May 2011.

I didn’t have any connections, so I escaped the coal mine first and I was homeless for three months. Then, out of nowhere, one day, there was a train stopped in the middle of this railroad, which happens a lot in North Korea because the power runs out. People are coming off the train and just talking, chilling. I went down to the train and I was going to beg for food from strangers, and then I saw the sign saying the train is going from Pyongyang to the border city. I was like, Yes! This is it. This is the opportunity for me to escape. I blended into the crowd, trying to pretend I belonged. A few hours later the power came back up. I got on the train.

I managed to hide during most of the ride, but I got caught by the train security because I wasn’t carrying the proper documents to travel. Every single piece inside of me broke because I knew they were going to deport me back to my hometown, and they were gonna throw me in jail.

The train security locked me in this huge room and left me. At first I was really hopeless and I was really scared. Then I realized I could escape through the window. The train slowed as it approached the station. I opened the window and I jumped out. I walked for a few hours, and then I got to the next train station. When the train arrived, I got on it again, the same one, and went to the border city.

I went to the house of the broker I knew from the first time I escaped. I slept for a bit and then headed out toward the river. There were a lot of security guards with guns, so I had to wait for darkness. I was hiding under the tall dry grass for most of the day. When it came, I stepped in the water and I swam across.

I walked for three days without water or any food. My feet were bruised and blistered, bleeding. After three days, I collapsed on the highway. A Chinese man found me in the middle of the road. He took me into his house, fed me, and gave me medication and clothing, and he connected me to a South Korean pastor.

The South Korean pastor offered to help me get to South Korea. And I was like, “No. I was just trying to find my father here [in China].” So the pastor bought me a bus ticket to my father’s house. When I got there, my father was so shocked. Here’s this 16-year-old kid who just crossed a thousand miles to find his dad. He was so surprised, but he told me, “Okay, you should go to South Korea, because you’re gonna get captured here again and deported back to North Korea, and this is the second time, and you are almost an adult.” If I had gotten caught again, there was no chance of me surviving in those prison camps.

So we found a broker, and I embarked on another long journey from China to Southeast Asia. I was in an immigration detention center in Southeast Asia, and I applied for political asylum to the South Korean embassy. But the South Korean embassy rejected me as a refugee because my father was Chinese. They were like, “You know what? We cannot really accept you. We would love to help you out, but we cannot change the law.” I told them, “I escaped to live with my father, but I got captured and deported back to North Korea, so I’m not really Chinese.” They didn’t care. So I applied as a political asylee to the United States, and I got accepted in 2012.

The first thing you think about North Korea is, “Kim Jong-un has a crazy haircut,” and the nuclear weapons. But focus on the people, not the regime. I feel really betrayed; I feel really angry at the North Korean government that lied to us. And I feel betrayed by the upper class, the businesspeople, who are really rich.

My brother was Chinese, so he could go to China and come back. Not many can do that in North Korea, but my brother could. Every time he went to China, he brought K-pop tapes and some movies. I watched those movies, so I knew about South Korea and the United States. I wasn’t certain if that was just in movies, or if that was regular life. North Korea kept telling us they’re just making those movies to put crappy things in our minds, poison our thoughts. I wasn’t 100 percent certain when I was 13. But after China, I was like, “This is 100 percent a lie.”

When I was in the coal mine, all of us were risking our lives together, so we shared everything. I used to tell them all these things I had seen in China. I told them what I ate, the movies I watched, all those freedoms I had. They were going crazy. They wanted to hear more and more and more. The people who worked with me were so happy. The next day, they wanted to work with me again, to hear all about it. I used to tell them, “This is what I ate. This is what it tastes like.” We had to trust each other. I wouldn’t tell random people, “I went to China, and I got deported.” I wouldn’t even tell them that.

There are three types of classes in North Korea. The first class is loyal, the second class is disloyal, and the lower class waverings. Not all of the loyals in North Korea are rich, but most of the loyals who live in the capital city, or who are in charge of one factory, are. For example, if my father was in charge of a factory, I am supposed to go into military, and I can apply to the same position my father has. It’s all inherited. There is no way to move, unless you do something — like you were in the military and you met Kim Jong-il while you were serving in the military, and you did something particularly special for Kim Jong-il. Otherwise there is no way to jump up from the lowest to the highest class.

About 100,000 North Koreans attend an anti-American rally at Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square on Sept. 23, 2017, amid escalating tensions between the two countries. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo Photo: Kyodo via AP

People who are protesting the United States or South Korea, those are village people. They don’t want to do it, but they’re forced by the government. If you don’t, you’re going to get collective punishment. For example, when Kim Jong-il died, people had to cry, otherwise you’re going to get in trouble. Police officers would say, “Why aren’t you crying?” It’s something like that.

I strongly believe that the North Korean regime is going to collapse in my lifetime. The younger generation in North Korea knows more about the foreign world. Every day the technology is getting better. When I was 11, I first got exposed to DVD players. When I was 14, I got exposed to a cell phone. Then I got exposed to USB sticks and the Notel DVD players.

You can get punished, but most people who get caught watching foreign media don’t go to jail right away. The police officers give them an option: “Do you want to go to jail and serve your time — ten years — or do you want to bribe me now and continue bribing me?” If I can bribe the police officer for the rest of my life … If you are watching foreign media that means you’re kind of rich, so most people can pay those bribes. That’s why the foreign media is getting more spread out.

Grace Jo, 26

Jo grew up in North Korea with her mother, father, maternal grandmother, and five siblings. Her father died while being transferred to a prison camp; her grandmother, older brother, and youngest brother died of starvation. Her older sister disappeared attempting to cross into China. Jo’s mother decided to flee with Jo, her sister, and her last surviving brother to China. Her mother couldn’t manage three kids crossing the river, so she left Jo’s brother behind with friends, planning to retrieve him in North Korea days later. Jo’s mom could not make it back in time, and her family found out that Jo’s brother had also died. Jo herself was captured and repatriated to North Korea twice. On her third attempt, with the help of a Korean-American pastor, her mom and older sister came to the United States in 2008. She is now vice-president of the North Korean Refugees in the United States, a nonprofit organization.

It was pretty challenging for us as I grew older. We moved from the city to a village, and the hungry days came more often. I didn’t see porridge or grain anymore. We just ate the green vegetables we collected and hot water and sometimes cold water for ten days. In the winter time, we suffered a lot because we didn’t have food, or we didn’t have any grass, or we didn’t have any wild vegetables to collect. Sometimes our parents brought some dried potato skins. One day my mother discovered newborn baby mice, and she and my grandmother started talking about how they can cook and feed one of the children. They decided to feed me. My family said, “It’s medicine.”

My father passed away while he was being transferred to prison. He violated regulations because he traveled to China without a passport or visa to ask his cousin to help him to get rice and other materials to help our family. After he came back to North Korea, some people in the village reported him, so officers took my father away. He never came back. Later, we found out while they were transferring him to the prison, the train stopped because the electricity went out. We don’t know how long the train was stopped for, but nobody gave my father water or food and his hands were handcuffed to the train-seat area, so he wasn’t able to see or stand. He basically died because of dehydration and starvation. But the officers who were transferring my father didn’t want to get punished, so they said my father tried to escape from the train and was running toward the border with China, so they shot him. That was the story we heard from the government, but my mom couldn’t believe it. So she searched the whole village and found one of the inmates, and he told us the true story.

After my father died, my grandmother passed away. My mother lost her husband, her mother, her sons, and one of her daughters in several months. My brothers died of starvation, and my older sister disappeared trying to cross into China. My mother also got tortured by the officers because they claimed my sister — the one who went missing — brought food to my mom. My mom bled a lot from the beating. She was almost giving up.

In a photo taken on September 22, 2017 a group of women walk across Kim Il-Sung sqaure in Pyongyang. Photo: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

About two weeks after my grandmother died, officers sent the leaders from the village to our house, and they warned my mother: “We will give you 15 days. After 15 days, if you don’t leave this house we will burn it down.” My mom tried to beg them, “We lost everybody in this house, and I have small kids. Where can we go?” But they said, “No, you have to go.” The officers claimed we had to vote for Kim Jong-il in the city, even though we had lived in this village for more than four years. But the real reason was because my father had violated regulations and we were considered a criminal family. The leaders didn’t want us to live in that village.

That was in 1997 or 1998. My mom tried to beg them, but it didn’t work, so she decided to take us to China. We walked for three days. My mom told us we had to be quiet; we had to walk carefully, slow down, hide in the grass. We finally reached the Tumen River. I was 6 and a half years old at the time, and my sister was 10. My mom had very bad health and my sister was a really thin, small girl, so as you can imagine, the water was a little strong and both of them struggled in the river. My mom was carrying me on her back. I was looking down at the water and the water was pretty deep. It came to my mom’s hips, almost touching my feet.

In China, we were basically hiding for four years. We helped a Chinese family with farming and stuff to earn some money. When I was 10, a Korean-Chinese pastor heard about my family and tried to help us. He took me and my sister to his house, and I lived there for two years. I went to school, and I was able to learn the Bible and how to write Korean and Chinese. In about 2001 or 2002, my mom decided to try to go to South Korea, so she picked me up and the three of us tried to go to the South Korean embassy in Beijing. But we got caught along the way. We got interviewed by Chinese officers and, three days later, we were sent back to North Korea. That was my first time realizing that I’m North Korean. I thought I was the same as Chinese girls because I attended school with all the Chinese students.

Back in North Korea, I was in an orphanage shelter, and separated from my family. We’d wake up at six in the morning and line up in the hallway for a count and walk to the kitchen line by line. The guards would call the names of different age groups and would send the older kids to the workforce, to the mountains to help people cut wood, or to farm. I think I stayed there for a month, and then they had to transfer me to the main orphanage shelter that receives all the orphan kids from different states. So many kids are brought there, and there is not enough food and the work is so hard. I was 12 years old and I was little — like a really tiny girl — and I had never done difficult work, so people thought if I went to that main orphanage shelter, I would definitely die. So I escaped while I was transferring. I took that same train in the opposite direction, and I went to my cousin’s house, which was where my mom had told me to go before we were separated. I went there to wait for my mother to get released from prison. In that time, I sold honey on the street.

After we were reunited — my sister, too — my mom tried to rearrange again to escape to China. The three of us couldn’t escape together because we feared the North Korean government was watching us; the plan was for me and my mom to head to China first, and then our sister would join us. My mom and I made it across the border, but about a week later, we took a train and got caught by plainclothes Chinese officers who interviewed us and confirmed we were North Koreans. They detained us at a hotel for a few hours, and then returned us to the train station again, to send us back. At that time, my mom told me I should try to escape from the Chinese officers, so I escaped in the parking lot, took a taxi, and ran away. My mom had told me the location I should go to in China for help, so I found the place and stayed there until my mom and sister found me.

About eight or nine months later, I was reunited with my mom and sister in China. This was in 2002. In the Chinese village, we met a Korean-Chinese pastor who introduced us to a Korean-American pastor. He supported us and other North Korean defectors. We had the option to escape to South Korea, but it was around 2004, when George W. Bush signed the North Korean Human Rights Act that allows North Korean refugees to legally come to America. When my mom read that, she said, “If there’s this kind of opportunity, I will choose to go to America instead of South Korea.” So we waited and stayed in China and tried to help the pastor with another group of defectors. Unfortunately, Chinese plainclothes officers had followed two groups of defectors from the train to our apartment. Those Chinese officers caught everybody. Some people tried to commit suicide. One lady cut her throat and both her arms and she was bleeding all over her body.

We all got caught and we were sentenced for 15 months in a Chinese prison near the border for North Korean defectors. I was 14 years old. We could not go outside; we could not breathe the fresh air; it was very difficult. We only had one blanket. Two adult men could stand on top of each other and that was the height of the wall. Normally we stayed about 30 people, maybe 40 people, in the room. I wasn’t in a good condition at the time, so I complained and I moved to a different room. Usually with 15 or 20 people in the room, but sometimes 2 or 3.

We were sentenced to go back to North Korea, but the Korean-American pastor had gone back to America, and he fundraised money — about $10,000 — to help rescue my family. He sent brokers and money to bribe the North Korean agents to let us go. Money talks. It was a success. We got to safety in China again with the help of the pastor, who then worked with different activists and we got protected by United Nations officers as refugees. I was 16 years old when we came to the U.S., to Seattle.

We tried our best to live in our country, North Korea. We tried so many different ways, and we tried our best to survive. But there was no way to survive there. My mom didn’t want to give up her life and her children’s lives, so her only choice was to escape to China. Our family is an example of 99 percent of regular people from North Korea. Every North Korean has a slightly different story, but they all struggle, family members have died of starvation or torture. We were not the only ones.

The information in North Korea is so isolated — people don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the village — so it’s very hard to become united. Everybody was monitored by the government, and if they did something wrong, they’d never see their family members again. Three generations will get punished. Not only a single person. Your parents will get punished, your siblings will get punished, and your child will get punished. If you think in American terms it’s very hard to understand what that’s like, but if you’re brainwashed since you were able to speak “momma and daddy,” it’s very hard [to go] against the government.

*Name has been changed to protect identity.
** Translated with help from Rosa Park of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

River that, along with the Tumen, serves as the border between North Korea and China.
What It’s Like to Escape From North Korea