The first time Grace and her family tried to flee North Korea, she was about 7 years old.
“We walked three nights and four days,” she recalls. “We walked on unpaved roads, and we crossed many mountains until we reached the Tumen River” that separates North Korea from China.
A few months earlier, her father had been arrested and beaten by authorities for crossing the border to buy a bag of rice, and he died on the train taking him to prison. Her grandmother and two younger brothers died of hunger, and her eldest sister had gone off to search for food and never returned.
Living in the northeastern North Hamgyong province, Jo’s family had been trying to survive on wild fruit, crickets and tree bark. Once, she said, she and her little brother would have nothing to eat for 10 days.
But crossing the border did not put an end to their problems. In China, Pyongyang’s main ally, her family’s three survivors were forced to go underground for fear of being sent back to North Korea. Eventually, they were caught, jailed and sent back home.
They managed to flee once again after Jo’s mother bribed a border guard, but once again they were caught and returned.
In 2006 she made her third — and final — escape, this time thanks to an American-Korean pastor who paid members of the Bowibu, North Korea’s omnipotent secret police, $10,000 to secure the three women’s freedom. [continued]