For a long time, Jo Jin Hye led two lives. Most people knew her as a home health-care manager living outside Washington D.C., or as a night student at a high school for adults.
But she had also 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.
Her mother fled with Jo Jin Hye for the border, carrying seven-year-old Grace Jo, who was malnourished, in a sack on her back. They walked for three days and nights before holding hands and wading through the waist-high currents of the Tumen River into China.
But Han had no way to bring her five-year-old son and had left him with neighbors, promising to return for him in five days. The person she later hired in China to fetch him reported that the little boy had been put out by their neighbors, who were famished and didn’t have enough to feed another mouth.
The boy had wandered into a nearby field, crying out, “Mommy, sister! When are you coming back?” He, too, succumbed to starvation.
Struggle to survive
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.”
Eventually they would be released and, by paying bribes, flee across the river again.
While in China, both sisters were jailed at one point for 15 months for helping other North Korean defectors. Both were also repatriated, usually separately—Grace Jo twice and Jo Jin Hye four times. Their mother was also repatriated four times.
Whenever they were caught by Chinese police, Han and Jo Jin Hye would swallow money wrapped in plastic for later use in North Korea.
Somehow, after these long periods of separation, Han always found her daughters. Jo Jin Hye herself once spent three months tracking down her younger sister.
Whenever they could, they would resume living together in China until one or more of them was arrested again. Grace Jo lived in constant fear that her mother would suddenly disappear.
Help from others
Grace Jo wound up living with several Chinese families who were ethnic Koreans. 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.
From China to America
Pastor Buck then arranged for brokers to get them out of North Korea and to Beijing, where the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees gave them lodging and protection. 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.
Like many other refugees, the Jo-Hans had their share of hard times in the United States, including a short spell of homelessness after their landlord, who rented them two rooms in his house, became intolerable. He had imposed a curfew and was unreasonable about their taking showers.
They finally left. The landlord refused to give them back their belongings, and they had to go to the police to recover them.
In addition, like other North Koreans, they were treated as inferior by some Korean-Americans. But today they have two cars, a suburban apartment, and jobs in home health care. Jo Jin Hye and Grace Jo are A-students and have professional ambitions.
Somehow, the traumatic events they suffered in North Korea during the famine and following their deportations have never thrown them off their stride.
A number of Americans and Korean-Americans have also stepped forward to aid and befriend the family. A Korean pastor has been a mentor to them even after they moved and changed churches. A former Clinton administration official gives them legal advice, two Korean interpreters have helped them in public appearances, and several individuals have tutored the sisters in their studies.
Members of their two Korean-American churches have lent a hand in many ways.
'The right connections'
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.
“Despite all they experienced, which would make you want to leave it all behind, they instead are so committed to helping their brothers and sisters here in the USA, rescuing refugees out of China, and helping bring about change in North Korea,” said Suzanne Scholte, chair of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, in an e-mailed comment.
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.
The Jo-Han family finances NKUS by selling Korean food at church bazaars and festivals and by donating most of the money they receive for public speaking. Jo and her mother speak about oppression in North Korea at churches and universities all over the United States and in South Korea, and have both testified before Congress.
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.
Peter Slavin is a U.S.-based freelance journalist.