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North Korean refugee, human rights advocate shares experience

Swetha Nakshatri | Contributing Reporter

Grace Jo, a North Korean refugee and the vice president of the nonprofit NKinUSA, spoke about her journey escaping from a North Korean village and her subsequent path to resettlement in the United States.

The talk, which was held Friday in the Danforth University Center, detailed how after Jo’s father was imprisoned and killed by the North Korean government for illegally crossing the border to get rice, the rest of her family escaped to China when Jo was only six years old. She discussed the hardships that her family faced in China, ranging from discrimination to being caught without papers while alongside other refugees.

Jo and her family participated in rescue missions for other refugees alongside a Korean-American missionary from Seattle, John Yuen, who helped over 260 people escape to South Korea. During this time, they were supported by his generosity, but were caught once more and sent to prison for 15 months in China and later North Korea.

After escaping, Jo and her family eventually secured passage to the United States in December 2006. They entered the United States in 2008, moving from Seattle to Alaska to Maryland, and finally to Virginia. The decision to support themselves without help from the church or Korean-American community meant Jo’s family faced daily struggles in nearly every aspect of their lives.

“I almost dropped out of school. But I really loved to study and I didn’t want to give up on school yet again, so instead of dropping out I transferred to an adult high school which runs classes at night,” Jo said. “I continued working and studying for about five years, but finally, in 2015, I received my high school diploma.”

In addition to the trouble Jo had balancing high school and work, she said acclimating to American culture also posed difficulties.

“Becoming an American was a long struggle. I don’t just mean becoming a citizen, although that too is a lengthy and complicated process,” she said. “But adjusting to American culture is also a process.”

Jo went on to discuss her work with the organization NKinUSA, an organization focused on refugee rescues that was founded in 2011 by Jo’s sister. She also discussed her work with resettlement and raising awareness for North Korean human rights violations.

“When we came to America as one of the first groups to come under the North Korean Human Rights Act passed in 2004, there was no specific system to help North Koreans resettle like there is in South Korea,” she said. “And people also didn’t know how to help, so unfortunately we received a lot of bad advice in the beginning. To help avoid those mistakes, we are working to help the North Korean refugees resettle who come [here].”

Sophomore Gloria Korpas said she could relate Jo’s experiences to those she had read about in class, which made the reality of the hardships and human rights violations even more impactful.

“It makes me want to be able to help more, do more, which is why I am interested in refugee and human rights law, so that was why it was super interesting to be here and to be able to hear that,” Korpas said.

Jo finished her speech on a positive note, expressing her hopes of becoming a human rights advocate, businesswoman and dentist for the people of North Korea. She implored the audience to continue to pursue their dreams.

“I have had to face many challenges in my life thus far and I will have to face many different challenges in the future. However, I believe that I can achieve my aspirations if I don’t give up and just keep trying,” she said. “So it does not matter how long it will take, or how difficult it will be. If I keep working, I believe I will one day see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

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