North Korean Human Rights Defenders
North Korean refugees who have known the horrors of living under authoritarian rule. Dedicated to fighting for human dignity for all who are oppressed, in all parts of the world.
Joseph Kim was born and raised in North Korea. His father died of starvation when Joseph was 12 years old, and he was separated from his mother and sister. He spent the next three years living on the streets with other homeless children.
In 2006, at age 15, Kim escaped to China, where missionaries and representatives from Liberty in North Korea (LINK) helped him make it to the United States. He was able to claim refugee status under the North Korean Human Rights Act, signed by President George W. Bush in 2004. He completed high school in Virginia and earned a B.A. in political science from Bard College—his thesis was titled “Marketization in North Korea Is Corrupting the Corrupted.”
Soon after, he became a U.S. citizen.
Kim delivered a 2013 TED talk on the importance of hope, and he published a memoir, Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America. He was a research assistant at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), served as a fellow with America Needs You, and interned with the Council of Korean Americans PSI.
Currently, Kim is expert-in-residence on the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas. The Human Freedom Initiative develops leaders in emerging democracies, stands with those who still live under tyranny, and fosters U.S. leadership through policy and action. In his work there, Kim shares his experience living under an authoritarian regime, the denial of human rights in his native country, and why he believes human rights matter in all nations. “Freedom is like air,” he says. “You can’t touch it or see it. We don’t think about it or appreciate it when we have it. But we notice it when we don’t have it, just like we notice when we don’t have oxygen. You realize you don’t have options.”
“North Korea is one of the darkest places on Earth in terms of the regime’s attitude toward human rights and how they treat citizens. It is as close to an absence of freedom as we define it in the Western world. The biggest victim of authoritarian regimes like this are the citizens, not those in high authority.”
Jinhye Jo was born in 1987 in North Hamkyung Province, North Korea. In the mid-1990s, when she was still a young child, her country experienced a period of mass starvation coupled with a general economic crisis. Her large, middle-class family was faced with a failed government food-distribution system and eight hungry mouths to feed. They were on the verge of starvation when Jinhye Jo’s father crossed the Sino-Korean border into China to find work. There, he was captured by Chinese authorities for illegal immigration; he was tortured and eventually died from his injuries. Jinhye Jo’s older sister, who also crossed the border into China to earn money for food, was never heard from again, reportedly having been sex trafficked. Her brother was left behind in North Korea because no one was strong enough to carry him. When they returned, only months later, he had perished from starvation.
Jinhye Jo, who had lost half of her immediate family, fled to China with her mother and younger sister. As refugees, they faced difficult detention conditions with tortuous interrogations and punishments, but finally escaped to the United States. They were aided by an NGO dedicated to helping North Koreans resettle in the U.S. with the proper health care, education, and basics that they critically needed. Since then, Jinhye Jo has passionately worked to make her difficult life experience matter. She has been an ardent public advocate, testifying before the U.S. Congress and the U.N. Commission of Inquiry. And she has spoken at numerous public events throughout the world. Her goal: to raise public awareness of the suffering in North Korea and to highlight the urgent need to facilitate resettlement efforts for North Korean refugees.
In 2011, Jinhye Jo helped found the nonprofit organization North Korean Refugees in the United States (NKinUSA). Their mission is threefold: to raise awareness of the human rights crisis in North Korea, to help facilitate escape and safe passage for the refugees, and to provide them with resettlement assistance. Above all, NKinUSA is committed to improving the grave situation in North Korea and to bringing other North Koreans to freedom.
“As a woman it is hard for me to describe what I saw and experienced, but I want to speak out today with courage for the countless North Korean refugees who have suffered under North Korea’s evil and its violation of human rights.”
Jihyun Park was born in North Korea to a middle-class family; her mother operated a side business in the black market to supplement the family income. Park graduated with a degree in math and science and became a teacher. But then the great famine struck her country, and her father and uncle starved to death. She and her brother fled to the border in 1998, fearful that they too would die if they did not escape. The siblings were separated as they crossed into China, and her brother was sent back to North Korea.
In China, Jihyun Park became a victim of human trafficking. For 5,000 yuan (the equivalent of $750), she was sold into forced marriage to a Chinese farmer with whom she had a child. Chinese authorities arrested her in 2004, separated her from her 5-year-old son, and repatriated her to North Korea. There, she endured horrific conditions in a forced labor camp. When she could no longer work due to gangrene, she opted not to seek treatment. Instead, she trafficked herself again to Chinese brokers in an effort to find her son. With the help of a kind stranger, she and her son were finally reunited and escaped together to the United Kingdom in 2008.
Park continues to live in the U.K. with her husband (“I fell in love with him. I didn’t know what this means, to love”) and three children. She has been a producer for BBC Online Korea Radio and a voice for the voiceless as the North Korean outreach and project coordinator for the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK). Currently, as assistant director of Connect: North Korea, she manages Korean-language output, builds relations with North Korean refugees, and oversees special projects. Park has spoken throughout Europe—at conferences, universities, and the U.K.’s Houses of Parliament. She gave testimony of her experiences at the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s London hearings, and her story has been featured in an Amnesty International campaign, various magazines and newspapers, and two short documentaries. In 2020, she won the Amnesty International Bravery Award.
“As one who found freedom, it was the duty of the free people to voice and fight for those who are still in the dark.”
Praise Joo, also known as Chanyang Joo, belongs to the “Jangmadang Generation”—a segment of young people in North Korean society who began selling and trading goods in the burgeoning gray markets after the public distribution system broke down. Jangmadang, Korean for “market grounds,” popped up during the devastating famine in the 1990s when the state could no longer provide for the people. As many as 2 million North Koreans starved to death as a result, and many of those who survived did so by becoming entrepreneurs. Those with corn made corn noodles. Those with beans made tofu.
Influenced by information from foreign radio broadcasts and media, Praise Joo’s family decided to escape in 2007 and 2009. Joo was 20 years old when she tried to escape her hometown in North Korea by swimming across the Tumen River. When she arrived in China, she was imprisoned with many other escapees. Eventually, with the help of a South Korean NGO (Serving Life International), she was able to bribe her way across the borders and was reunited with her family in South Korea in 2011.
Joo is currently active in both South Korean and Western media, appearing in a variety of venues to talk about the situation in North Korea—the ongoing religious persecution and relentless human rights violations. She has worked with Liberty in North Korea (LINK), a California-based organization that helps North Koreans escape the brutal regime through a 3,000-mile secret route and then gives them the tools to become agents of change in their new lives. Joo also serves as co-chairperson of Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea (WWCSGNK), and she is a regular participant in the popular Korean talent and talk show “Now on My Way to Meet You,” which aims to bridge the gap between North and South Koreans. According to Joo, “The young generation still thinks North Korea is a foreign country. I strongly believe that we are the same people, that it is one nation.”
Praise Joo’s heroic escape from North Korea marked the beginning of a young life dedicated to changing the narrative. Through her determination, she fights for the freedom of those she left behind.
“People are more aware than before. It’s just that they can’t express their thoughts freely. Even though they can’t communicate over the internet, people who are aware recognize each other. It’s like a kind of human network.”
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