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The refugee perspective you rarely hear: Grace Jo shares her story of defection from North Korea

Grace Jo, now an American citizen, defected from North Korea at age six. She's now the vice president of NKinUSA, which advocates for human rights for North Koreans.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Grace Jo, now an American citizen, defected from North Korea at age six. She's now the vice president of NKinUSA, which advocates for human rights for North Koreans.

As a little girl in North Korea, Grace Jo lived through one of the worst famines in North Korean history. While the official death toll from the notoriously most restrictive authoritarian country in the world is unknown, it is estimated that from 1994 to 1998, anywhere between 600,000 and 2.5 million people died of hunger.

Included in that number were Jo’s grandmother and two younger brothers. Jo’s father was tortured and starved to death in a North Korean jail after he was arrested while searching the country for food.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Jo shared the story of her childhood, how she and her sister and mother escaped North Korea and were eventually resettled in the United States.

In 2013, Jo became an American citizen and helps run the North Korean human rights advocacy organization NKinUSA alongside her sister. Jo was in Missouri last week for the unveiling of the MU Institute for Korean Studies, which was started by Professors Sheena Greitens and Harrison Kim to promote the study and research of Korean culture.

Growing up in North Korea

Jo’s family was hit hard by the famine in North Korea. In addition to the deaths of her direct family members, she recalls stretches of time when all her family had nothing to eat.

“I experienced about 10 days of starving straight,” Jo said. “We only drank cold water, bringing water from a small stream next to our house. At the end of the ninth or tenth day, we did not have strength to get to the river for the water. I remember the ongoing starvation. If we had some small food, we had dried potato skins that were dried and mashed with other mountain vegetables. That’s the only food we could find.”

This foraged food was only available in the spring, summer or fall and in the winter, Jo watched as people in her village, her sister’s friends and her brothers died of starvation.

Jo also remembers that they weren’t ever allowed to watch TV or listen to the radio. The only phone the family was allowed to use only allowed calls to North Korean officials or other citizens of the country. There was no way to access information from outside the country.

“A lot of adults told me about what the North Korean regime teaches,” Jo said. “There, they teach Christians are the first people to avoid and that Americans, if we see them, we should try to kill them because they are our enemies. All those negative words we heard when we were small.”

Before the famine got so bad, Jo’s father and mother were able to travel to China (a country that maintains diplomatic relations and a relatively open border) to ask relatives for help supporting their children.

“When they went there, they saw the reality in China, which is way better than North Korea, totally different than schools and government teach you,” Jo said. “That was the starting point they learned about the outside of the country and then they realized ‘oh maybe the other countries are better than our own country.’ That’s how refugees start learning information, how they start to change their minds.”

Leaving North Korea

In 1998, Jo’s journey out of the country with her surviving mother and sister started. They traveled to China, where they would live for 10 years, punctuated by continual repatriations to North Korea that were accompanied by imprisonment and torture, Jo said.

Jo was only 6 years old when they first left North Korea and she said she had no idea where they were going or what they were doing. While life in China was chaotic and secretive, she also said this was the first time she was exposed to American and western culture through movies that showed off the fanciness and wealth of the country.

In early 2004, Jo’s mother met a Korean-American missionary in China who showed the Jo family the North Korean Human Rights Act, which had been signed by President George W. Bush that year, which would provide humanitarian assistance to North Koreans in North Korea and provide legal assistance to those who had fled. He told the Jo family this would mean they might be able to resettled in America, rather than South Korea, where Jo’s mom heard there were North Korean spies and a great influx of North Korean refugees.

“She was trying to go as far away as possible,” Jo said.

In 2008, UNHCR rescued Jo and her family from China, settling them in the United States as legal refugees, in Alaska and Seattle, Washington.

Helping other refugees

In 2008, Jo’s sister, Jinhye went on a 15-day hunger strike in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. After that experience, she decided to start the organization NKinUSA to spread the message of human rights for North Koreans even further. She brought her sister on as vice president of the organization.

“We saw so many [North Korean] women were in the prison and they shared stories with us,” Jo said. “We cannot forget all those people. We cannot take them off of our mind.”

The organization now aids North Korean defectors with refugee rescue, resettlement in South Korea and America, and raising awareness across the country about the plight of North Koreans.

So far, the organization has rescued 83 North Korean defectors, most of whom were sent to South Korea. They’ve been able to help resettle two girls in the United States, who are now at American universities.

The majority of the resettlement work involves negotiating with brokers who have lists of North Koreans who have defected that are living in China. These lists are long and NKinUSA can only help a select few at a time — they try to aid those people with the most need of assistance/resettlement, but those decisions are hard to make.

There have been a total of 214 refugees resettled in the United States through legal refugee programs since 2004. For those who are already here, NKinUSA, also helps provide legal assistance and funding for medical and housing issues.

“Most North Koreans are doing very hard work and do everything by themselves,” Jo said. “They are struggling but they are working hard and studying hard.”

What’s next?

Jo said she is sad about the current state of refugee resettlement in the United States and that she is worried about President Donald Trump’s actions on immigration.

“Especially for North Koreans, there is no other way for them to survive if we stop those routes or opportunities for them to come into America,” Jo said.

"Especially for North Koreans, there is no other way for them to survive if we stop those routes or opportunities for them to come into America."

- Grace Jo

She hopes that the president will choose to resettle more refugees from North Korea and give them the opportunity for a life of freedom.

“After I came to America, there’s good and bad, like a lot of things,” Jo said. “American people, first, are not bad. They are very kind and willing to listen to us. They’re willing to open hearts to help us. If I ask a question on the street, if I got lost, they always kindly direct me. Or sometimes, people even take me in the right direction. I think Americans are very sweet-hearted, nice people. It is totally opposite than we hear when you are little.

“As a North Korean-American, I should say: this is a wonderful country, I can’t leave. It is a totally different country than my country. I hope my country can become like this country one day too.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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