“I wouldn’t be here without the people with a big heart for North Korea.” Grace Jo, a North Korean defector, expressed her gratitude to all who participated in the One Korea forum held at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies on July 13th. One of several distinguished speakers, including Mr. Edwin Feulner, Founder of the Heritage Foundation, and Mr. Cheol Hwan Kang, President of the North Korea Strategy Center, Grace herself is the Vice President of NKinUSA. North Korean Refugees in the USA is a nonprofit that addresses the human rights crisis in North Korea by raising awareness of the severity of conditions in the impoverished nation and facilitating the safe passage and resettlement of North Korean refugees into their new homes.
“A defector’s journey is like walking a tightrope… if you miss a step and fall, it is very hard to recover.”
The forum, hosted by the Global Peace Foundation and the US Korea Institute at SAIS, focused on empowering the voice of North Korean defectors in order to address the growing movement for the reunification of North and South Korea. Grace Jo’s story is a striking juxtaposition to the life enjoyed by many young United States college students attending the same classes she now joins after her rescue from North Korea in 2008. One of only 180 refugees who have settled in the USA from North Korea, the forum provided a stage where this long-stifled voice could be projected out into the hearts of attendees who care about the growing concerns, economic and humane, resulting from a divided Korean peninsula.
Smiling, Grace could talk about her “life of freedom,” accentuated by her description of four pairs of shoes and the luxury of owning a toothbrush and toothpaste, essentials to get ready in the morning before heading off to her college courses here in the United States. What most wouldn’t be able to discern from her calm demeanor are haunting memories of the family members she lost to starvation, a tragic fate she barely escaped herself. Grace lost her two younger brothers to the clutches of hunger. One of the boys passed away in the family’s home when they had nothing to feed him. Her older sister, in an attempt to escape to China, disappeared and her whereabouts remain unknown. Somberly, Grace mentions the 18 years of separation saying, “Even as I am sitting here, I wonder if she has been married or with someone through the sex trafficking ring in China, whether she made her escape to another country, or if she is simply gone.”
“Why do mothers have to abandon their loved children at home and cross the river to China and be sold like animals?…Why do people have to suffer in fear of unjust punishment every day?”
“My relatively normal American life here has never stopped me from thinking about my home country.” With years of experience in both North Korean and China detention centers, Grace is no stranger to the injustices and cruelty facing so many of her countrymen back home. “A defector’s journey is like walking a tightrope… if you miss a step and fall, it is very hard to recover.”
“Why do mothers have to abandon their loved children at home and cross the river to China and be sold like animals? Why do fathers have to face life in prison over a bag of rice? Why do children have to beg on the streets without any news of their parents? Why do people have to suffer in fear of unjust punishment every day? Why do people escape North Korea only to die in China?” Driven by these questions, Grace is passionate to spread awareness of the real plight of the North Korean people. When asked how the United States and others can support the humanitarian efforts to support defectors, she advocated for their basic educational needs. Besides learning a new language, there are everyday tasks that a typical United States citizen must conduct, including how to pay bills or write emails, fortunate opportunities that many of us take for granted as tedious errands.
Grace is one of only a few who have been lucky enough to escape the atrocities facing our North Korean brothers and sisters. Why share her story? Her story, though riddled with unimaginable hardship and heartbreak, is one of hope. She provides a glimpse into a world so far from our American borders in an attempt to bring it closer to our hearts.
Read more on this featured One Korea forum HERE. See pictures from the One Korea Congressional Briefing in the Gallery. Follow Global Peace Youth-USA on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date on the latest.