OSLO – “I’m good at escaping,” says Grace Jo, a slender 25-year-old who managed to flee North Korea and its authoritarian regime not just once but three times, though most of her family was not so lucky.
Even as the reclusive Asian nation steps up its military provocations, millions of its people still struggle to get enough to eat.
But those like Jo who can find their way out of the country often find themselves sent back, once they are discovered by authorities in neighbouring countries.
Such was Jo’s fate the first time she fled North Korea, when she was about seven years old.
“We walked three nights and four days,” she recalls.
“We walked on unpaved roads, and we crossed many mountains until we reached the Tumen River” which separates North Korea from China.
Only her mother and her sister Jinhye, who was 10 at the time, made the trip with her.
A few months earlier, her father had been arrested and beaten by authorities for crossing the border to buy a bag of rice, and he died on the train taking him to prison.
Her grandmother and two younger brothers died of hunger, and her eldest sister had gone off to search for food and never returned.
“In a short time, almost all my family members died or disappeared,” Jo told AFP this week on the sidelines of the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual gathering of human rights activists held in the Norwegian capital.
At the time – the second half of the 1990s – North Korea was experiencing a famine that left hundreds of thousands dead.
BABY MICE ON THE MENU
Living in the north-eastern North Hamgyong province, Jo’s family had been trying to survive on wild fruit, crickets and tree bark.
Once, she said, she and her little brother would have nothing to eat for 10 days.
“One day, my grandmother found six newborn mice under some stones,” she recalled.
“With my mother, they boiled these six small mice in a stone pot.”
She was five-and-a-half years old, she said, adding that her jet black hair had turned yellow from malnutrition.
But crossing the border did not put an end to their problems. In China, Pyongyang’s main ally, her family’s three survivors were forced to go underground for fear of being sent back to North Korea.
Eventually, they were caught and jailed, and sent back home.
They managed to flee once again after Jo’s mother bribed a border guard, but once again they were caught and returned.
In 2006 she made her third – and final – escape, this time thanks to an American-Korean pastor who paid members of the Bowibu, North Korea’s omnipotent secret police, US$10,000 to secure the three women’s freedom.
After receiving UN refugee status, they moved to the United States in 2008, and Jo has since acquired American citizenship – an unlikely turn of events for someone who was taught that “Americans are the biggest enemy” and “we should kill them or report to the officials if we see them.”
MESSAGE FOR TRUMP
Today, Jo is vice-president of NKinUSA, an organisation founded by her sister to help other defectors.
“We want President Trump to accept more North Korean refugees in the US and allow us to provide resettlement services,” she said.
“Also, President Trump, please tell China, Vietnam and Laos to stop repatriating the refugees. Sending them back to North Korea is returning them to torture, imprisonment or even death,” she added.
Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, more than 30,000 North Koreans have fled their country, most of them after the 1990s famine. Almost 10.5 million people, or 41 percent of the population, remain undernourished, according to the UN.
Jo says that while the country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is certainly a potential problem, the millions of people scrabbling to eat enough, “and millions more living with no liberty of any kind, is an actual problem.”