Inside the Hermit Kingdom: North Korean Defector Speaks Out

In emotional remarks given at an event organized by ASNC on September 17, Jin Hye Jo, a defector from North Korea, courageously detailed her experience living in, and escaping from, the notoriously repressive state.

Born in 1987, Jo recounted how her and her family suffered through famine and starvation, the death of her father, and repeated attempts to escape the country while living in North Korea. Imprisoned along with her mother and sister for these escape attempts, Jo also spoke about the physical abuse she endured while in prison. She eventually escaped North Korea and was granted asylum in the U.S. along with her mother and sister in 2008. Now living in the Washington D.C. area, Jo exclaimed “the United States is like heaven.”

North Korea remains a staple news item in American media—from nuclear threats, to the Kaesong industrial complex, to Dennis Rodman and celebrity diplomacy. Despite this, there is still a lack of available and reliable information on conditions inside the country.

According to Sandra Fahy, a Professor of Anthropology at Tokyo’s Sophia University who has researched conditions inside the country, North Korea is not a “monolith” nor are its people. Famine, for example, is not just symbolic of deprivation in North Korea but also illustrate the class divisions in the country. The military and country’s elite live lavishly—although not entirely by Western definitions—and have more regular access to food. The rest of the country, however, bears the brunt of the famine and starves with little to no access to food. Tragically, Fahy noted that “when people try to alter their access [to] food, they end up committing crimes like border crossing, trafficking, and selling illegal drugs,” which when caught, usually result in imprisonment or even execution.

Noting the recent tightening of the border between China and North Korea since Kim Jong Un’s ascension to Supreme Leader of North Korea in December 2011, Blaine Harden, whose bestselling book, Escape from Camp 14, chronicles the life of defector Shin Dong-hyuk, noted that the number of attempted and successful defections has plummeted in the past two years. Because the border has long been the main site of exchange for North Koreans searching for food, information from the outside world, and as a means of escape, Harden noted that this development is particularly worrisome.

All the speakers at the event agreed that in addition to economic engagement with the West and decisive action from China, information about the outside world could have a critical role in catalyzing political change in North Korea. Jo added, “people in North Korea are on the verge of exploding, but in order to achieve explosion, information is vital.” The event was moderated by Philip Yun, Executive Director of the Ploughshares Fund.

Special thanks to Beatrice Na for her interpretation at the event. 

Learn more about Jin Hye Jo's organization, North Korean Refugees in U.S.A.

ASNC hosted author Blaine Harden to talk about his book, Escape from Camp 14, on July 11, 2012.