Rebounding, Part I - North Korean Refugee's Story

North Korean refugees have striking stories of the hardships they have endured and what their difficult lives were like in North Korea. “Mrs. Jo’s” story stands apart to many of us who have heard story after story of the suffering that has occurred amidst North Korean refugees. She lost all three of her children to starvation. But her will to survive and thrive are unlike anything we’ve seen.

North Korea suffered one of the worst famines in human history in the late ‘90s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country began to flounder. North Korea launched a PR campaign called “Let's eat two meals a day” in 1991 to convince its people to eat less to ease the government's burden of feeding its country. By the late ‘90s, the country was awash in starvation. It was common to see dead bodies lining the roads and piled in train stations, according to the accounts of North Korean refugees in our care. The death toll from starvation reached seven figures.

Mrs. Jo lived through these times and like many loyal citizens of the communist country, she did her best to keep the country going. In 1998, as the country was deep in the throes of the famine, she lost her 16-year-old daughter to starvation. Later the same year, her husband died of a liver disease. The hospitals did not have the medicine or manpower to treat him.

In 1999 she lost another son. Later that year her last child, a boy, wasted away in her arms as she sat on the floor of her home. He told Mrs. Jo that he wished to eat one bowl of white rice before he died.

“Yes, my son,” Mrs. Jo said. “I will go to the market and sell my shirt and buy you a bowl of rice.”

He slipped into unconsciousness and when he came to, he smiled, touched the button on her shirt and breathed his last.

Mrs. Jo hadn’t eaten in 15 days, she said. But she knew then that she had to leave her homeland or she too would perish. When she made it to a border city in North Korea, she was at the brink of death.

A boy around the age of 11 found her and bought her a bowl of noodles.

“Miss, what’s wrong?” he asked.

“I’ve been starving for so long,” Mrs. Jo said. “I want to leave.”

“My uncle lives around the border. Go there and tell him that I sent you. He will help you,” the boy said. “To get there you have to pass three military gates. If you tell them my uncle’s name they will let you pass.”

She followed this boy’s instructions and survived. Mrs. Jo was now a North Korean refugee.

Part 2 of “Rebounding” will be posted next week.