The 100th North Korean defector to the United States says he values freedom more than life and wants to eventually return as a missionary to help his compatriots toiling as laborers in the Russian Far East.
Jo Jeon Myeong was allowed in as a refugee in early September after he sought sanctuary at the South Korean consulate in Russia, where he was among what is believed to be several thousand North Koreans working as laborers.
The U.S. has only accepted North Korean refugees since 2004, when the North Korean Human Rights Act was signed into law.
“I am free. It feels like a dream—like living in the midst of a fantasy,” Jo said, withholding his real name for his own security.
“The first thought that comes to my mind is that I value freedom more than life—that I would be willing to put my life on the line, but not to throw away my freedom.”
His first impression of the United States is that, in sharp contrast with what he learned from propaganda in North Korea, Americans are a kind and warm people, and he feels very much at home.
“How I wish North Koreans knew the truth about America! When I first arrived here, I was amazed to realize that ordinary Americans live in houses and buildings that only high-ranking party officials could afford in North Korea,” Jo said.
Escape from North Korea
In North Korea, Jo’s birth outside the core class determined his destiny. Just as for millions of other North Koreans, his family origin became a stigma that deprived him of a sense of purpose or hope in life, he said.
As an adult, Jo found work as a logger in Russia, where he became a member of the Christian community.
But when one of his fellow church members was forcibly repatriated to North Korea in January, he and another logger, who uses the surname Bang, began to fear for their safety and devised a plan to defect.
With the help of Justice for North Korea, a human rights group, the two fled to the South Korean consulate in Vladivostok in March and expressed their desire to resettle in the United States in order to study theology and become missionaries.
According to a Sept. 1 interview with Justice for North Korea, the two men held a subsequent meeting with an official of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), resulting in their eligibility for refugee status.
Transfer to Moscow
Justice for North Korea said that for the five months before their transfer to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, the two loggers were given protection by the South Korean Consulate. They were, however, worried about the safety of their families in North Korea.
Jo said he left Moscow for New York on Sept. 8 before moving on to resettle in a city in the southeastern United States.
The other logger was also expected to travel to the United States, according to Justice for North Korea, although it is unclear whether he had made the journey at the time of publishing.
The duo were initially among North Korean loggers dispatched to work in Russia.
The loggers had to give about half of their earnings to North Korean authorities and ended up taking home only about U.S. $70, or 17 percent, of their monthly wages paid by Russian logging companies, according to Justice for North Korea.
It said that nearly 10,000 North Korean loggers wander around the Russian Far East, working as day laborers, after having escaped the harsh conditions they had to face as officially dispatched workers.
Learning new skills
Jo is currently receiving English language and computer training with the help of a group assisting new immigrants. He attends free classes five times a week together with about 40 other people from countries including Bhutan, Burma, and Pakistan.
The group teaches Jo the basic skills he will need to live in America, such as how to use banking services or public transportation, and also gives him a lodging, food, and transportation allowance, together with U.S. $40 a week as pocket money.
He said he is happy to live in a place where he will be able to choose his own work and lifestyle, including the right to practice religion, which he was denied while living in North Korea.
“In North Korea, it is the government that assigns all jobs. What I have learned … is that in America one gets a job according to his or her skills and abilities, and remuneration also depends on one’s professional qualifications and efforts,” he said.
Jo said he hopes to work for the improvement of human rights and religious freedom in North Korea by working as a missionary for North Korean loggers in Russia.
Each day, when he returns home, Jo continues to study English, using his personal computer.
He said he has already received a Social Security Card, and in August 2011 will likely receive his green card allowing him status as a permanent resident of the United States.
But while he is excited about the opportunities he sees in America, Jo said his new life is not without its challenges.
“If there’s one thing that’s inconvenient here, that is the language barrier. I feel that I can hardly get a grip on everything I’m doing, including studying English,” he said.
“Time just flies by, and time is so precious … However, I finally feel at home—free.”
The North Korean Human Rights Act, which allows the U.S. government to receive North Korean refugees, was signed into U.S. law by former President George W. Bush on Oct. 18, 2004.
It also allows the U.S. government to provide humanitarian assistance to North Koreans inside North Korea and provide grants to non-profit organizations which seek to promote human rights, democracy, rule of law, and the development of a market economy in the country.
The act also allows efforts to increase information flow inside North Korea and to provide humanitarian or legal assistance to North Koreans who have fled their nuclear-armed country.
The U.S. accepted a group of six North Korean refugees for the first time since the act was signed into law on May 5, 2006.
Originally reported by Hee Jung Yang for RFA’s Korean service. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.