Jo Yuri (32, from Rason) escaped from North Korea with her daughter in February 2014 and entered South Korea to start a new life five months later. In a short space of time, she has risen to new heights and now manages a cosmetics case company with nearly 40 employees, and has had appearances on television shows including KBS’ Window between North and South and TV Chosun’s MoranBong Club.
Jo Yuri was the eldest daughter in a family that also had twin brothers. She was involved in trade in the North before her defection and her entire extended family remains in the North. Her twin brothers are in the middle of their ten-year military service. After graduating from university, Mrs. Jo served as a volunteer in the military. Her mom was a merchant and sent a bribe to the Chongjin Military Mobilization Department so that her daughter could be placed in Pyongyang in an office of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces. The position was seen as less arduous than other types of service, because it involved training in an office setting rather than outdoor work. But the work was still stressful at times, as speed and accuracy were paramount.
Mrs. Jo slept just two to three hours per night, training for a period of one year and two months. When her commanders called by, she had to maintain a perfect posture with her hands in the right position. Pins were stuck in every desk to ensure the perfect posture. If she slouched, the pins would prick her and she bled quite a lot during her first few months of training. She was only 17 years old. However, the conditions were not as bad as in other military units, and she was able to taste foods others couldn’t, like cheese, butter, and bananas. She was released after four years of service, at which point she had totally lost track of the outside world.
Real difficulties begin
But she says her real difficulties began after her discharge from military service. She returned home to find that the Ministry of People’s Security had taken all of her savings and her mother had been taken into custody. Her crime? She wasn’t participating in so-called ‘organizational life’ and was making too much money. At the time, her mom was trading large volumes of seafood – including abalone, hairy crab, and sea cucumber – and making a good living. When she discovered that her family’s savings had been confiscated and her mother had been taken away, Mrs. Jo sought assistance from the military authorities, the municipal party office, and the police, all to no avail.
Six months later, Mrs. Jo received notice that it was time to pick up her mother. It was raining hard that day, and her mother was not in good health. Mrs. Jo carried her mother in the pouring rain fifteen kilometers back home. When she finally got home and laid her mother down, she realized her mother was no longer breathing. Mrs. Jo was devastated and confused. Why had this happened? She had played by all the rules and received recognition for her high performance during military service, even getting a photo alongside Kim Jong Il.
After her mother had passed away, things became even harder. Mrs. Jo did not originally consider defecting, but decided to go into China to do some trading and earn money. She was also curious to see what freedom in China looked like, but had been warned by the Chosun Worker’s Party: “Eat only what the party gives you, and live according to fixed expenses. If you don’t, the party will launch an investigation.” Her every move was watched. Even when she became pregnant and gave birth to her child, she was under investigation.
When she decided to leave the North, Kim Jong Il had recently died and there were special orders to tighten up the borders. She was arrested while trying to flee and was tortured by the Ministry of State Security (MSS) for 100 days. She was nearly executed in Rason, but was spared by Rason’s MSS chief, as she and her mother had previously interacted with him during their trading days. She believes he saved her for two reasons: first, because they had a connection, and second, because his impropriety (accepting bribes) could surface from an investigation if she were executed.
The MSS chief wrote in his report at the time that Mrs. Jo was someone, “Who loved the land [country] with unusual fervor, and so she should not be released from it [executed].” Mrs. Jo was set free and quickly went to find her daughter, but was shocked to find that she had become a homeless beggar known in North Korea as kkotjebi. She broke down in tears, and that was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. She decided to defect.
Risking her life to give her daughter a better one
To make their escape, Mrs. Jo and her daughter travelled by train to Kilju for a week, a journey that takes just three hours by car. It was the middle of a freezing cold winter and the train carriage was packed. Every time her daughter had to urinate, she had to do so in dangerous conditions out of the moving carriage.
To determine whether it would be safe to enter China, Mrs. Jo initially left her daughter in the care of the political commissar. She tried to arrange a meeting with a Chinese contact, but was apprehended by Chinese police and tortured for another 100 days. As soon as she was released, she went to find her daughter, but discovered that her daughter was being put up for adoption in a mountainous region of Kangwon Province. She pressured the political commissar and threatened to report him, and luckily was reunited.
When Mrs. Jo finally reached South Korea, she could barely believe that she had truly made it. She explained to her four-year-old daughter that they had arrived in South Korea, but even as the words were coming out of her mouth, she had trouble believing it herself. The intelligence officer at the national intake facility treated them with kindness, and her daughter was given a blood test and lots of candy by the nurse. Slowly but surely, it all began to sink in. They had arrived in the South and were safe. They even began to put on some weight.
Back in North Korea, Mrs. Jo recalls having to draw drinking water when they needed it. They bathed in dirty, black water, and had to drink water in hierarchical order, starting with the father. The fact that water was constantly available on tap in South Korea was amazing to Mrs. Jo and her daughter. That was just the start; unlike North Korea, there were roads packed with cars, 24-hour electricity, and mobile phone payment systems.
Giving her daughter a brighter future
After finishing her time at the Hanawon resettlement facility, Mrs. Jo wanted to focus on education and ensure that her daughter would receive the very best education possible. She was proud of her daughter’s artistic and musical abilities, and resolved to quickly get up to speed and learn about the South Korean lifestyle.
She soon found a job working as a guide to foreign tourists on the Kaesong Industrial Complex side of Panmunjom Village, and took turns guiding visitors through underground tunnels, the Dora Mountain observatory, and the Unification Observatory. In her explanations, she tried to be even more accurate and comprehensive than she was during her military service in North Korea. Once, when some tourists saw Mrs. Jo crying and asked why, she explained that she still had family in the North and missed them.
When she started work at Panmunjom, she was afraid that she would be recognized and so she wore large sunglasses to conceal her face. She lamented that the North and South were separated by an invisible line carving up the peninsula. Mrs Jo became determined to live a purposeful and respectable life. No longer would she cower and tremble in fear like she had in the North. She quit her job as a guide at Panmunjom and prepared for her next challenge.
“I want to be able to purchase a home and provide everything my daughter needs through my own hard work,” she said to herself, and resolved to start a business. She received some advice from her South Korean boyfriend, who ran a printing factory. He was in need of materials for a cosmetics case, but because of the THAAD conflict with China and the resulting indirect sanctions, wasn’t able to procure the materials. Mrs. Jo took over the materials factory, and began addressing all of the obstacles in her way one at a time. In the beginning, she had seven employees, and was paid a monthly wage of two million won (approximately US $1,850). Now she has almost 40 employees. She is unafraid to declare that she is a defector from North Korea, and finds that this often inspires those around her to work harder.
Although Mrs. Jo has found happiness and success in the South, she still feels lonely from time to time and misses her family. She explained that anyone in her shoes would feel the same. She urges all North Korean defectors in the South to work diligently and await unification. She added that hard work will lead to success, noting playfully that, “All defectors should live as well as the South Koreans do!”
*This article has been brought to you thanks to support from the Korea Press Foundation.