Date:              April 16, 2012

By Mark Ellis
Senior Correspondent, ASSIST News Service

LEESBURG, VIRGINIA (ANS) -- One by one her family members fell, either by starvation or at the hands of a brutal regime. In their arduous journey to freedom, they found a "filling" on levels they could not have imagined.

(left to rt.) Eun, Pastor Philip Buck, Suzanne Scholte, Pastor Heemoon Lee (Vice-Chairman of the NK Freedom Coalition), Jin Hye

"We grew up as atheists," says Jin Hye Jo, 24, now living in northern Virginia with her sister, Eun and her mother Han. They are the only known survivors of a family of eight people. Her grandmother died from starvation before her eyes, her last wish to eat one steamed potato.

In the 1990s, extended drought and the fall of the Soviet Union meant the family no longer received food rations from the government. They were forced to forage for food wherever they could find it. They stripped the bark off pine trees, grazed for grass, and ate corn cobs, which they ground into bland cakes. They stalked anything that moved or slithered on the ground.

Incredibly, they were taught to believe the communist party kept them alive. Their leaders said it was the fault of the United States and South Korea that they faced such privation and hardship.

By 1997, Jin Hye's father and mother, Jo and Han, had reached the breaking point. They decided to risk a crossing into China to find food. They planned to make contact with a nephew th ere, and then return home with whatever they could carry.

After they made the crossing, they were shocked to see the relative abundance of food in China. They returned after a week with sacks full of rice. They made two more trips across the border, but unfortunately, a neighborhood informant reported their clandestine excursions to the authorities.

Father and mother arrested and mistreated

Jin Hye's father, Jo, was arrested immediately and the family never saw him again. The next day, officers came for her mother. At the police station, they forced her to kneel in front of them, then they kicked her and beat her with a wooden rod. The beating shattered Han's skull in four places.

They told her to lay her hands flat on the cement floor and then stomped on them with their boots. Inexplicably, they released her. Han thinks their "mercy" may have been caused by the recognition she was pregnant.

Jin Hye later learned her father died on a prisoner train after he w as forced to stand with his arms tied over his head for 10 days without food or water. "The regime couldn't feed their people and couldn't feed prisoners," Jin Hye notes with sadness.

On her mother's return from the police station, she saw the police had confiscated all the rice they carried from China. Jin Hye's 18-year-old sister decided she would go to China to find food for the family. They never saw her again and believe she ended up in the hands of human traffickers.

"She was sold to a trafficking ring, will probably never come back to our family and I don't even know if I will ever meet her again while I am still alive," Jin Hye laments.

A few months afterward, Han gave birth to a boy. Despite the risks, Han decided to make another trip to China for food. She would also see if she could track down her missing daughter. "While my mother was gone, the baby died in my arms of starvation," Jin Hye says. "He was waiting for our mother's bosom to come back and feed and nourish him, but he could not wait."

A family decimated

Two months later, Han returned with food, but she found her baby and her 76-year-old mother dead from starvation. In less than a year, the family had had been cut in half.

It is the policy of the North Korean government to punish the extended family of anyone who violates the law. Perhaps they should not have been surprised when officers showed up one night in 1998, and told them they must move out of their house or the authorities would burn it down.

A few days later, homeless, with no place to turn, Han gathered her three surviving kids - Jin Hye, then 11, Eun, 7, and BoKum, 5 -- and started the 100-mile walk to the Chinese border.

"Since we had no shoes on, our feet soon developed blisters and started bleeding, and we were weak from hunger; our own mother had suffered torture in prison and was in no condition to look out after the three of us," Jin Hye notes.


Mark Ellis is a senior correspondent for ASSIST News Service and the founder of  He is available to speak to groups about the plight of the church in restricted countries, to share stories and testimonies from the mission field, and to preach the gospel.
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