Grace Jo’s “Series of Miracles” Saved Her From the “Death Sentence” of Remaining in North Korea

By Grace Bydalek

Grace Jo recalled the moment that her sister, Esther, first took the wheel on their brand-new car, driving Jo and their mother home from a car dealership in Maryland. That day, the three refugee women had been able to pay the deposit on a brand-new car—a red Toyota Corolla—with the help of their church community.

The women could barely contain their excitement, Jo said. In the ten years attempting to escape North Korea, they had never tasted freedom like this. When the red light in front of them turned green, Esther stomped on the accelerator. “She pressed the gas so fast that we almost flew into the cars in front of us,” recalled Jo.

Suddenly, a siren whined behind them and flashing lights flooded the car. Jo remembered how her mother began to panic. “What did you do to us?” her mother cried. “We got caught. What should we do?”

After a moment of silence, Jo said that Esther threw her head back and laughed. Then she said “seven words” that changed her mother’s reaction: “This is America. We are safe here.”

Jo said that the officer approached the window to find her, her sister, and her mother laughing. Jo explained their situation in broken English to the officer, who wrote a warning notice and, handing it to Esther, said, “Please drive safely. Welcome to America.”

Repression and Isolationism Led To Destitution

In the aftermath of World War II, Korea was split into two separate nations, North and South Korea, with the Korean Peninsula effectively divided along the 38th parallel. This partition, initially intended as a temporary measure to oversee the removal of Japanese forces from the country, led to the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) under the leadership of Kim Il Sung in 1948.

Under Kim Il Sung’s authoritarian rule, North Korea rapidly transformed into a highly centralized and militarized state, characterized by unequivocal state control. Upon Sung’s death in 1994, his son, Kim Jong Il, assumed control, further entrenching the regime’s absolute power through repression and isolationism.

Despite efforts to modernize and strengthen the country’s military capabilities, North Korea descended into economic stagnation, exacerbated by international sanctions, mismanagement, and a focus on military spending at the expense of the welfare of its citizens.

Grace Jo was born, just before Sung’s death, in 1991 in North Hamgyong Province, near the border of China. When she was a child, her family relocated to the countryside in search of work and sustenance.

“It was like the Amazon there. Dragonflies, butterflies. The snakes were our pets,” Jo said. “We picked berries and played with flowers and mud—pretending to cook dishes with the flowers. It was nothing edible. But it was fun.”

Nevertheless, Jo’s family of seven siblings languished in extreme poverty.

“We tried so many things to stay alive,” she recalled. Her mother steamed buns to sell or exchange for food. Her grandmother made alcohol in the house. They planted corn and potatoes, but insects ruined their crops. Later, Jo learned the whole country was experiencing the same farming failure.

At the time, Jo thought their destitute conditions were normal.

“I thought if our house was under pouring rain, then the whole universe was raining. That’s how little I knew until I was 13 years old,” she said.

In 1997, Jo said that her parents took a risk and left home to find food in China—a practice that was illegal for North Korean citizens. Two times they returned home successfully. The third time, however, her parents were detained after being reported by a friend.

Jo recalled that, three months later, her pregnant mother was released from custody but had sustained a leg injury that forced her to crawl on her hands and knees. Her father remained in custody.

Several months later, Jo said that a man forcefully entered their home “without taking off his shoes” which is an abnormal practice for many Asian cultures. This man delivered her father’s party membership ID card to Jo’s family and then opened a notification letter, reading it aloud.

“When the officers tried to transfer him between detention centers for his legal trial, he ran for China and was shot,” Jo said.

As Jo recalled, this news took her mother by surprise. The next morning, her mother delivered her child on the kitchen floor.

“She was screaming in pain,” Jo said. “All of the little babies were sitting in the corner with fear in their eyes. Somehow, the newborn boy was healthy.”

Jo’s eldest sister’s many attempts to find food for the family during this time were unsuccessful. She continued: “My mother was weak. The newborn was crying on the ground. My grandmother was barely awake at the time.”

After promising to return the next day, her sister went missing after venturing out for food.

“It’s been 27 years now,” Jo said, since she last saw her eldest sister.

In the ensuing months, Jo recalled that both her baby brother and her grandmother would succumb to starvation. Her grandmother’s last wish was to eat a baked potato—a wish Jo said her family couldn’t fulfill.

Soon after, Jo recalled that seven officers visited the house and demanded her family leave the village in 15 days due to her parents’ former “crimes.” Because North Korean citizens have no freedom to travel or purchase a house, not to mention the impending winter, Jo said that this demand was a death sentence.

“It was the last straw for my mother,” said Jo. “There was nothing she could hold onto in my country.” It was time to run.

“Do Not Forget Where You Came From”

On the night of their planned escape, Jo’s mother locked the door and stood in front of their home, looking up at the facade. “It was a very dark night,” Jo said, “full of stars. A clear sky.”

“She asked us to remember that scene.” No matter where they went and no matter how much time passed, Jo said their mother reminded her children, “Do not forget where you came from. You are North Korean and this is your home.”

Esther, six-year-old Grace Jo, and their mother set out for freedom while the young boys stayed behind. Three days later, the women reached the Tumen River.

“Three women, trying to cross the river in broad daylight. It’s very brave when I think about it now,” Jo said, recalling how her mother carried her like a backpack while holding Esther’s hand. When they’d reached the other side, Jo said they realized how close they’d come to failing their mission—two soldiers had been catching crawfish, and by chance, the women had been concealed by a curve in the mountain.

They celebrated their safe passage with a feast at a family friend’s house, Jo said, which was “the first real meal I ate” during their escape.

The following ten years were a tumultuous “series of miracles,” she said, as the family sought survival in the Chinese countryside. According to Jo, they were tortured in Tumen Prison, a center built strictly for North Korean defectors.

Eventually, Jo said that they stayed in Chinese safe houses meant for North Korean children. The family was forcefully sent back to North Korea twice, once when Jo was 12 and then again at 15. “We were caught many times and there wasn’t a period for more than a year where we lived peacefully,” said Jo.

“Every time I was separated from my family or alone in China, the only thing I could hold onto was praying,” said Jo. “Each time, He [God] showed His love to me, His care and protection. That’s how I can hold onto my faith. Without my faith, I couldn’t bear these painful moments.”

Several pastors helped Jo’s family by supplying connections, funds, bribes, and food. According to Jo, the most important advocate for her family was Pastor John Yoon, who gained a reputation as the conductor of the “North Korean Underground Railroad.” He frequently helped ferry refugees from China to a neutral country, like Mongolia or Thailand.

Jo recalled how Pastor Yoon would return every six months from his travels to America with chocolates and embroidery materials. During one visit in 2004, Jo said that the pastor came with a newspaper from Seattle, Washington, which contained an article about the North Korean Human Rights Act, which President George W. Bush had just signed into law.

“My mother knew then that she wanted us to go to America,” Jo said. After a thwarted escape attempt resulted in a 13-month stint in a detention center, Jo recalled how Pastor Yoon raised additional funds to start the process once more.

After Jo’s family was safely in Beijing, China, she said they were protected for 15 months by the United Nations, staying in an apartment arranged by officers at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

In March 2008, her family received the news that their refugee status had been approved. They were going to America.

Later that year, Jo said that she and her family landed in the United States, settling first in Alaska, then Maryland, Washington, and eventually Georgia, where they currently reside. Jo’s mother currently works as a massage therapist and her sister delivers meals to Korean factory workers in Savannah.

“America Is My Home”

Today, Jo considers herself a passionate advocate for human rights and social justice, using her testimony to expose the plight of North Korean refugees as well as raise awareness of the atrocities committed by the regime.

Through her speeches with organizations such as the Dissident Project and Young Americans for Freedom, Jo said that she continues to fight for the rights of marginalized communities and empower those who have been silenced and oppressed.

“We were born in North Korea,” said Jo, “but denied fundamental rights by our home country. We came to China, but we were expelled from that country because we were not Chinese citizens. Until we came to America, we always had to hide our identity as North Koreans. But here, I am safe to say who I am.”

“Remember this scene,” Jo’s mother had once told her, standing in front of their house in the North Korean countryside on that cloudless, starry night. “No matter where you go, or how much time has passed. Do not forget where you came from.”

“I am North Korean,” Jo said. “And America is my home.”

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