“I, ALONG WITH MANY OTHERS, HAVE TALKED ABOUT LIFE IN NORTH KOREA. THE NORTH KOREAN GOVERNMENT CALLS US LIARS. LOOK AT THE FACTS, USE YOUR GOOD JUDGMENT, AND DECIDE JUST WHO IS TELLING THE TRUTH.” – Jinhye Jo, President
Jinhye was born into a relatively comfortable middle-class family in North Korea. But when the great famine hit the country in the 1990s, Jinhye saw her large family shrink to four. Her dad was captured and tortured to death for crossing into China looking for work. Her sister was sold into sex trafficking in China in her search for food. Her grandmother and brother succumbed to starvation. The remaining members of the family—Jinhye, her mother, younger sister, and five year old brother—decided to find a new life together in China. But because the five year old was too weak to make the trek on his own and too heavy to carry, he was left with a neighbor until the family could return, as promised, with food and sweets. When political instability and poor weather conditions prevented their return from China until months later, he had already perished.
North Korea blames U.S. sanctions for its famine. But Jinhye realized the facts proved quite the opposite: the U.S. was one of the largest foreign aid donors to North Korea during the famine. The North Korean government often diverted this aid from the vulnerable population groups, like Jinhye, to feed its military. And while the people were left to starve, the government spent its state resources on luxury goods like foreign cars, jewelry, and exotic whiskeys for the ruling elite.
Jinhye and her remaining mom and sister stayed in China for ten years. During that time they were forcibly repatriated (sent back) four times to North Korea, where they were nearly beaten to death in prisons. They finally escaped to the U.S. through the help of a Korean American minister who paid a $10,000 bribe to get them out of a North Korean detention facility.
In the U.S., while attending night classes and working a full time job, Jinhye established a nonprofit organization, North Korean Refugees in the United States (NKinUSA), dedicated to helping North Koreans escape and, for those who wish, to starting a new life in the U.S. She organizes concerts and Korean food sales to help raise the money to smuggle North Koreans out. And she continues to be an ardent public advocate testifying before the U.S. Congress, the U.N., and numerous events throughout the world to raise awareness of the suffering in North Korea and to highlight the urgent need to care for North Korean refugees who, like herself, can flourish once free.
“Even now in my dream, I still see myself holding my baby brother and I see my younger brother smiling at me, holding onto me,” Jinhye told a UN Commission. “Although I am powerless and I cannot do much, by speaking out and telling my story to other people who have power to change North Korea, they can do something to the regime so that there will not be any more cases like me. People, like me, who miss their family and cry only seeing them in dreams.”
Excerpt: North Korea: The Power of Truth, Speak Truth to Power, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights