Ji Hyeon-A, a DPRK Defector Tells Her Story

10858 DRL North Korea

MS. JULIE TURNER: Hi, everyone. My name is Julie Turner. And in this edition of Human Rights Heroes, we are going to focus on the incredible challenges facing women defectors from North Korea. I’m joined today by Ji Hyeon-a, a North Korean defector, human rights activist, and author. Welcome, Ms. Ji.

Before we get into the interview, I wanted to highlight some of Ms. Ji’s background. Ms. Ji fled North Korea four times in search of a better life. In 1998, the first time she and her family crossed the border into China, her father was arrested by Chinese authorities and was never seen again. Ms. Ji was also arrested and repatriated to North Korea, suffering beatings and harsh interrogation.

She fled again in 1999 and 2000 but each time was arrested in China and sent back to North Korea. Finally, Ms. Ji was able to defect for the final time in 2002, eventually finding her way to South Korea in 2007.

She has since become an active human rights advocate, a bestselling author, and an accomplished public speaker. She has also testified before the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korea in 2014 and spoke yesterday at a side event at the UN Security Council in New York. And with that, we’ll get started with the questions.

Ms. Ji, thank you for your willingness to share these stories. They must be very difficult to discuss. What influenced your decision to leave North Korea?

TRANSLATOR: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

MS. JI HYEON-A: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

TRANSLATOR: Because in North Korea there was no freedom of expression, freedom of faith, and freedom of movement, when our father came to us and basically told us and asked us that we needed to get out of North Korea, I think for me, that was the biggest influence in my decision in wanting to leave North Korea.

MS. TURNER: What were some of the challenges that you faced in trying to escape North Korea?

TRANSLATOR: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

MS. HYEON-A: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

TRANSLATOR: For me, the most difficult aspect of leaving North Korea was the fact that I was leaving my hometown, my country where I was born. So doing that, carrying that act of leaving my hometown was the most difficult challenge for me.

MS. HYEON-A: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

TRANSLATOR: So I wanted to stay where I was living in my homeland, in my home country. But the fact that I had no choice but to leave, that was the most difficult thing.

MS. TURNER: I understand that after many years of separation, you’ve been reunited with many of your family members now in South Korea. Can you tell us more about how you found each other?

TRANSLATOR: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

MS. HYEON-A: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

TRANSLATOR: So I made every effort to search for my younger siblings, my younger sister, and younger brother. In the case of my younger sister, she was sold into a human trafficking situation when she was 17 years old when she crossed over into China. But it was nearly impossible to find and to look for my siblings in a country, such a big country as China.

And my younger brother, I was separated from him for a total of 13 years. But I was able to get in touch– or a friend of my younger brother was able to get in touch with me about the whereabouts of my brother. And through that call, I was able to initiate the process of bringing my brother through Thailand to South Korea.

In the of my younger sister, she was able to get help from her friends and her network of people that she had around her to bring herself to South Korea. At that time, she did not know that her family members, myself and others, had already come to South Korea.

So when she arrived in South Korea after her similar process, that’s when she realized that we had already come to South Korea. So that was the way that we were able to be reunited with one another.

MS. TURNER: It’s an amazing story. I think it must have been very moving to, you know, be reunited in a way.

TRANSLATOR: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

MS. TURNER: How has the human rights situation in the past few years evolved in North Korea? What would you say that the challenges are for people that are trying to escape North Korea? Are they increasing? Are they decreasing? Are they staying the same?

TRANSLATOR: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

MS. HYEON-A: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

TRANSLATOR: So in terms of other people wanting to escape North Korea and the difficulty that they face, for many of the North Korean factors that have resettled in South Korea, they are able to talk to their family members, relatives back in North Korea through phone conversations.

And the people that are left in North Korea, they want to escape North Korea and come to South Korea. But they can’t for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s the fact that they have kids or they have elderly parents that they have to take care of that they can move around with them to try to escape.

And so there is that difficulty that is faced by the North Korean family members, all 10 members left behind in North Korea. And for North Koreans, as they talk to their family members that have escaped to South Korea, now they have more awareness and a positive feeling towards South Korea because of the talks that’s– that they had with their family members.

And because they– for some of them, they have come to know about South Korean products. And so there were positive image about the South Korea. So they want to [INAUDIBLE] the remaining challenges that– that’s faced by the people in North Korea.

In terms of the human rights situation in Korea, I would say that nothing has changed. Nothing has improved in North Korea. You knew that going into North Korea and seeing the situation for ourselves. With our own eyes, we could just see by the acts carried out by North Korean regime.

I think the biggest example would be the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s brother. That in and of itself is a perfect example of how the human rights situation has not improved at all in North Korea.

MS. TURNER: Yesterday you testified at a UN side event in New York. Why do you think that it’s important that the international community know about stories like yours? And what more can the international community be doing to help improve the human rights situation in North Korea?

TRANSLATOR: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

MS. HYEON-A: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

TRANSLATOR: My answer to that is that the North Korean human rights issue is one that people all over the world should be involved within and that they should care about because people– we are all the same people. We are born free, but North Korea is the one country where people– the one where they are born, but they have no freedom.

And you have a situation where in North Korea, there is so much pain and suffering. People are starving. And just across the DMZ in South Korea, there’s so– so much abundance as is in the rest of the world. And when we have this stark difference, people living like that in the 21st century is unacceptable.

So while people are dying and the rest of the world watches that and hears that, and if they maintain their silence despite knowing what is going on, I do not think that is right. So that is why I believe people should take more interest and be involved with this issue.

MS. HYEON-A: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

TRANSLATOR: In terms of how the international community can improve the situation with human rights in North Korea is, I think, allowing defectors to speak and to share the testimony in their stories on the international stage as I did in the UN yesterday. That would be a great opportunity for people to learn about the issue and to raise awareness about the issue.

MS. HYEON-A: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

TRANSLATOR: And through all types of media– television, radio, whatever it may be to continue to talk about it and discuss and mention North Korean human rights so that it would maintain, would be something that is always an issue that’s talked about and at the forefront of many things that are out there in terms of media.

MS. TURNER: Well, thank you. Last question– what did you find most surprising about life outside of North Korea? And what was the most difficult part of adjusting to life in South Korea?

TRANSLATOR: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

MS. HYEON-A: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

TRANSLATOR: So for me, the most surprising aspect of life in South Korea was when I actually first arrived in South Korea. When I arrived in Incheon, I was being taken by a car by South Korean government officials through Seoul. And I noticed– to Seoul.

And I noticed that there were so many trees in the mountains all around. And I wondered– and that was very– I was very impressed by that. And I wondered, wait. How did people in South Korea eat?

And what I meant– and what I mean by that is in North Korea, people cut down trees. They not only strip the bark to eat, but they cut down the trees to use as the firewood to start the fire to cook in the kitchen.

And I wondered, you know, with all these trees still up, how do South Korean people eat? And then, of course, I later found out that in South Korea, they don’t cut down trees to use in the kitchen to cook food. There’s gas or electricity that’s used to fire up the stove and cook in the kitchen. So for me, that was the most surprising thing upon my arrival in South Korea.

MS. HYEON-A: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

TRANSLATOR: And the most difficult thing, hard thing, for me was such a heartbreaking thing. And that was that when I first arrived, I had a really difficult time trying to have an appetite and try to eat. Every time I took the spoon full of rice to my mouth, I find it very difficult to swallow.

And that was because I had come from such a place of suffering. And to come to a place of such abundance, it was really difficult for me to adjust. I thought China– I thought for a long time, before I came to South Korea, that South Korea had lived as well as China.

But when I got to South Korea, it far exceeded my expectation. It was even better than China. So to adjust to that, it took a lot of time and effort on my part because every time I was living with that abundance in South Korea, I kept on remembering in particular the fellow inmates that I saw suffer and died at the Chungsan Re-education Camp Number 11, where I was detained for a few months to–

I– I kept on remembering the prisoners who died and suffered there. So for me, that was the most difficult thing to adjust to when I arrived in South Korea.

MS. HYEON-A: [SPEAKING KOREAN]

TRANSLATOR: And some of the other difficulties or hardships that I faces– I still don’t know the whereabouts about my father. It’s been 19 years since he disappeared in somewhere in China. And every time his birthday or traditional holiday comes up, that’s when I miss him dearly. I long to see my father again.

And another hardship is that because of the torture and the beating that I received while being detained in North Korea, I suffer a lot of physical ailments. And I had an accident– this is after I arrived in South Korea.

But because of the torture and the beatings that I received, I suffered an epileptic seizure. And I was ironing my– one of my clothes. And I actually had a seizure and fell down. And I fell on top of the– the iron. So it burned my leg. And as a result of that, I had to get surgery and have to deal with that, that pain.

And so for me, every time I become sick or even though my mind and spirit is willing, sometimes the body can’t follow in terms of wanting to do the human rights activism. So when that happens, I feel somewhat sorry and guilty towards the people in North Korea that I can’t continue this activism.

So the physical aftereffects of the torture and the resulting pain, which prevents me sometimes from being more active. That’s some of the hardship as well.

MS. TURNER: Ms. Ji, thank you so much for taking the time to come in today and to share these difficult stories with us. You know, it’s– it’s very moving to hear about your experiences. And I will say that we appreciate you being a voice for the millions of North Koreans that don’t have the freedoms to be able to share their stories with us today.

Thank you again for listening to this episode of Human Rights Heroes. We hope you will tune again– in again next month for our next episode. Follow us on Facebook at– at state DRL to learn more about State Department’s human rights and democracy programs.