On her seventh birthday, Grace Jo crossed the Tumen River with her mother and sister and entered into China. Weak and malnourished, Grace’s eyes were opened to the world beyond her country’s borders. She saw a family with a pet dog that ate better than she ever had. “Even the animals here live better than we do,” Grace recalled thinking at the time.
Grace, her older sister, and her mother lived in China intermittently for 10 years. They were always on the run, hiding from the Chinese police. They also had to evade North Korean agents who had been dispatched to hunt down their family. They weren’t able to avoid capture; all three were repatriated multiple times.
After being caught and repatriated in 2001, young Grace spent many months in a North Korean prison facility. “The soldiers liked to kick and punch people. They liked to practice boxing on the prisoners,” Grace explained.
“From this moment on, you are no longer human beings, you will be treated like animals,” the North Korean soldiers barked.
“We could not look them in the eye. We had to stare at their feet. If we moved or looked up, they would punish all of us,” she said.
North Korean prisons are notoriously brutal, with some previously imprisoned defectors reporting seeing guards beat people mercilessly. Some said that the soldiers would sometimes attack pregnant women, kicking them in their stomachs repeatedly.
In this harsh and unforgiving environment, Grace was always terrified that she would never see her family again. Read more