Cover Story

Fleeing hell

"Fleeing hell" Continued...

Issue: "Inside the wire," March 22, 2014

ONE WAY THE KIM REGIME exerts control over the population is by starvation—a recurring theme among escapees. The government controls markets and distributes food according to a class-based system called songbun, in which people are divided according to party loyalty and family associations. While its citizenry starved and died in the ’90s, the government refused to swerve from its “inefficient economic production and discriminatory resource allocation,” stated the UN report, despite opportunities to do so. When other nations provided humanitarian food aid, the Kim regime diverted the food to top officials and military, even storing the excess away. Escapee Jo Jin Hye, 26, told UN investigators it’s incomprehensible how North Korean officials drive BMWs and drink “exotic” whiskeys “while there are all kinds of kids dying of starvation.”

Jo remembers hunger well—hunger that made her head spin as a young girl. Growing up in a poor family in North Hamgyong Province, her family was among those hit hardest by the famine. Her teenage sister and father disappeared on trips to find food—the sister apparently sex-trafficked to China, the father killed in prison for crossing borders. A fellow prisoner later said he’d been tortured and starved to death.

“WHAT HAD I TO LOSE?”: Jo Jin Hye.
Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon
“WHAT HAD I TO LOSE?”: Jo Jin Hye.
When Jo’s baby brother was born, her mother was so malnourished she couldn’t lactate. Jo’s family begged other women in town for milk, but the women drove them away with a broomstick. The baby withered away in 10-year-old Jo’s arms.

Jo, her mother, and sister soon slipped into China for food. They found food, and Jo found Christianity. One night, feeling overwhelmed by her life’s hardships, Jo cried while leading goats to a watering place. On the road she heard music and singing trilling from a house. Curious, she peeked inside: A man was playing a piano while another sang. Jo, overcome by the beauty of the music, crumpled to the ground and sobbed. An old woman invited her in. “Don’t be afraid,” she told her. “This is where the wounded and weary gather.”

Jo attended this small church of chosunjok people (ethnic Koreans in China) for several months until her mother found out. Christians are cruel Westerners, her mother warned her. She related a North Korean textbook story of how an American missionary in Pyongyang once beat a kid with a branch for eating from his apple tree. But Jo thought, “All they do is share Bible messages and sing praise. What’s so bad about that?” She ultimately returned to the church, where she read the Bible and learned to pray.

Later, prayer sustained Jo when Chinese authorities repatriated her to North Korea, where prison guards beat, kicked, and slapped her, pulled her hair, and whipped her back with wires. Jo told WORLD she was close to execution—for repeated defection, helping other defectors, and interacting with Christians—but escaped death because of prayer: “I was between life and death—what had I to lose? I had no fear or doubts, I just prayed. I prayed with 100 percent assurance that God will answer my prayers, and God answered them all.” The ultimate answer: A Korean-American pastor she befriended in China, through donations from American churches, pooled a $10,000 bribe to help free Jo.

Today, the three women live in Virginia. Jo’s mother, now a deacon, regularly listens to Christian sermons while she makes kimchee (traditional pickled cabbage) and cleans the house. Meanwhile, Jo feels her own faith has dwindled as she got “a little too comfortable” with her religious liberties in America. It’s a vastly different spiritual landscape in North Korea, where “just by professing your faith, you can get killed. … You’re putting your life at risk by becoming a Christian.”

PREDICTABLY, THE NORTH KOREAN government has denied the testimonies of Kang, Ahn, Jo, and hundreds of others. It repeatedly ignored the UN commission’s letters requesting entry to North Korea, and called the testimonies a “charade” performed by “human scum.”

In its report, the commission called for North Korea to dismantle all camps and release its prisoners. It recommended the UN Security Council use the report to formally prosecute North Korean officials with “crimes against humanity” before the International Criminal Court. The commission also urged the international community (especially China) to grant asylum to North Koreans fleeing their country.

All these recommendations are unlikely to happen: China, one of five veto-wielding UN Security Council members, calls North Koreans illegal “economic migrants,” not refugees, and aggressively repatriates them. China even denies that defectors face punishment upon return.

“If China vetoes this, then they have to be held to account,” said Stuart Windsor, a spokesman for U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide, one of the earliest advocates for the UN investigation. He said the report means the entire international community is responsible to act: “The evidence is damning.”

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