WASHINGTON — Grace Jo tried to escape from North Korea so many times that she figured out about how much time it would take to complete each element of the daring undertaking.
Jo, now living in the D.C. area, told WTOP that risking everything to get out of North Korea to China required iron will and stamina and levied a huge human toll on her family.
“It can take up to three days,” said the 25-year-old college student. “My mother, my sister and I walked a lot, crossed a river by swimming and climbed a mountain.”
The courageous endeavors also involved bribing border guards, hiding in safe houses and arranging for secret transportation to ferry them to a safe area inside China — all risky acts.
Starting when she was a small child, the three repeatedly escaped, were caught and sent back to North Korea or imprisoned in China.
Once, they were jailed for 15 months in China. She also spent time in North Korean orphanages, where small children are forced to work on construction projects and in mines from 7 a.m. until dark. Only the sick were spared.
“Grace Jo is an extraordinarily resilient individual who has gone through a harrowing ordeal. She and her family are true survivors,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) in D.C.
Their determination to escape on numerous occasions was driven by the dire circumstances of everyday life for ordinary North Koreans.
“It’s very harsh,” Jo said, recounting the painful details of her early childhood. “We didn’t have any food, we didn’t have any money and there was no way we could make any money.”
The severe circumstances proved costly for her and her family.
“In 1998, my grandmother and younger brothers all passed away because of starvation,” Jo said. “The food situation was very bad. My younger brother and I were starved for 10 days straight. We only drank cold water, because there was no food we could find.”
She was 6 years old at the time, and the family was not even able to find the smallest scraps of anything to eat, she recalled.
“We could not even find any small potatoes from the public farms because other people had already found them,” said Jo.
She said even keeping warm was a great test of endurance.
“In the wintertime, we could not find any wood to burn to keep the house warm,” she said.
The Jo family, said Scarlatoiu, “are true survivors.”
“They went through circumstances that none of us have ever had to go through,” he said. “Their story of survival is absolutely unbelievable.”
In 2006, at 15, after witnessing death, a traumatic suicide attempt by a North Korean refugee, and near starvation, she and her family finally escaped with the help of a missionary and came to the U.S.
Jo attends college in the D.C. area and is vice president of NKinUSA, a non-profit organization founded by a group of North Korean refugees re-settled in the U.S. and other individuals concerned about the human rights crisis in North Korea.
You can hear Grace Jo tell her story in her own words here and on the Target USA podcast page.