UNICEF hosts North Korean refugee

Darby Jo shares his experiences surviving under North Korea’s oppressive regime

Darby Jo presents his story, detailing the struggles he faced in order to find freedom.

On Wednesday, May 17, the UNICEF Club hosted Darby Jo, a North Korean writer and photographer, to speak about his experience growing up under a hereditary dictatorship. Two students from McLean’s Korean Club were also invited to join the UNICEF meeting to translate for Jo.

“During my transition from North Korea to South Korea to America, I’ve never been in a legitimate public high school,” Jo said. “I was around [high school age] when I extricated myself from North Korea and started the journey to migrate to South Korea, and eventually to the United States.”

One of the goals of the UNICEF Club is to educate students about human rights issues worldwide, shining a light on the problems plaguing underrepresented and underprivileged groups.

“[The experience] was really incredible,” sophomore Yeojin Kim said. “I learned so much more about the North Korean refugees. It was an amazing opportunity…to bring more awareness to the North Korean people and [make] a change.”

Jo’s desire to escape North Korea had taken form from a young age, the harrowing experience of surviving alone in an authoritarian state having pushed him to consider other possibilities and ways of living.

“Since my parents left me at a very young age, I had to live off and on the streets for three years from [ages] six to ten,” Jo said. “At first, I had hoped that my parents would come back and find me, but I eventually realized that they weren’t coming for me. I was truly alone in North Korea and saw no growth in that country.”

Although Jo struggled as a child to find security and food within North Korea, his desire for freedom and education were what drove him to flee and embark on the treacherous escape from his native country into China.

“[When] I was discovered by the Chinese police, I was forcefully repatriated back to North Korea,” Jo said. “I was incarcerated in a prison for around four months [so] I was fortunate to escape and return back to my hometown, [even though] I was alone and had to live in destitution.”

Although his first attempt at liberation had failed, Jo continued to fight for his survival, defecting a total of four times before he was successful.

“After finally escaping to [South] Korea, I finished all elementary, middle, and high school education in a year and a half,” Jo said. “I enrolled myself in a prestigious Korean university where I majored in photography and minored in Chinese.”

Jo’s visit was planned in coordination with No Chain, a human rights organization that focuses on ending the hereditary dictatorship in North Korea.

“Our primary activity is that we smuggle information into North Korea,” said Charles You, founder of the organization No Chain. “We feel that to bring democracy to North Korea, we have to actually get around people and open their minds to what is happening in the outside world.”

No Chain works to educate the citizens of North Korea through transportable technology.

“We smuggle microSD cards these days,” You said. “We load anything from western movies, Korean dramas, and K-pop music, anything that might challenge their way of thinking.”

Jo’s path to freedom did not come easy as escaping North Korea was only the first of the many hurdles he endured in the process of acclimating to his new life.

“I had to go through very dramatic changes in my surroundings and there weren’t a lot of nice people that cared for me,” Jo said. “[However,] when I came to South Korea, I saw that the world was changing so quickly. I saw all of these technological innovations and decided that I should record all these changes, which is why I majored in photography.”

In another life, Jo said that he would have just been a businessman, but his motivation to capture the beauty of the villages and cities in Korea inspired him to pursue photography.

“I take pictures to remember and canonize the North Korean refugees who made the [dangerous] move to escape from the destitution in North Korea,” Jo said. “I wanted to record all of their experiences.”