Ji Hyeon-A describes North Korea as “a terrifying prison.” She knows its horrors because she lived them.
In 1998, she and her family fled North Korea after hearing South Korean radio broadcasts that made clear a better life was available outside of their closed society, where information and freedom were limited. Her family members decided to leave separately to avoid suspicion.
Split off from her family after crossing the Tumen River, on the border between North Korea and China, Ji was captured, returned to North Korea and imprisoned. She would flee and be returned to North Korea four times. She made it to Seoul and safety in 2007. Until then, she endured horrific treatment, including torture and beatings.
“The details of her suffering at the hands of the North Korean state’s security apparatus are difficult to hear, but they are necessary to hear,” said Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador the the United Nations. Haley held a discussion of human rights abuses in North Korea on December 11, 2017. Canada, France, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the United Kingdom co-hosted the discussion.
— U.S. State Dept | Democracy, Human Rights, & Labor (@StateDRL) December 11, 2017
While imprisoned in North Korea, Ji saw pregnant women ordered to perform hard labor until they miscarried. “Everyone was subjected to harsh labor, and meals were so lacking that we ate raw locusts, discarded cabbage leaves, and skinned frogs and rats.”
She closed the eyelids of prisoners who died, malnourished and dehydrated. One thought kept her going: “I had to tell the world about North Korea’s human rights and realities.”
When she finally made it to South Korea in 2007, she became an activist and writer. Her memoir, A Thousand Miles for Freedom, became a bestseller in South Korea. It was adapted into the musical drama Tears of God.
After decades of terror, Ji found hope in South Korea. She was able to arrange for her mother and daughter to join her there. Separately, her little brother and sister reunited with the family. Tears flowed. “We promised we’d never leave each other again.” She misses her father, who was arrested while in China in 1998 and has not been heard from again.
Ji said her story is not unusual. Millions of other North Koreans long for the freedom she fought so long to achieve.
Haley said human rights abuses of the North Korean regime will continue unless North Korean defectors’ stories are heard. “That’s why we have to talk about it,” Haley said.
Ji now writes and attends Chonnam National University, where she majors in human rights and diplomacy. To learn more about her story, you can watch a Facebook live interview with Ji, which was filmed at the State Department.