A North Korean defector who at one point in her life was sold to a Chinese man for $2,300 and spent time in a North Korean prison has opened up about her life in squalor under one of the most brutal regimes in the world.
May Joo, who was born in Pyongyang in 1978 and came to the United States in 2012, shared her story publicly for the first time before a crowd gathered at a recent event in Washington, D.C.
According to International Christian Concern's regional director, Gina Goh, Joo detailed how she witnessed the death of many of her neighbors and friends when she grew up. During that time, people struggled to feed themselves and they were given inadequate portions of food.
Although Joo was born in Pyongyang, her family was relocated to the town of Hyesan in the Ryanggang province in 1988, when the Kim regime relocated thousands of families for population control.
"People struggled to feed themselves and often hiked into the mountains to scout for anything edible," Goh wrote in a summary of Joo's account. "Widespread famine from the mid- to-late 1990s, a period commonly known as the 'Arduous March,' followed on the heels of the relocation after North Korea's founding father, Kim Il-Sung, died in 1994. Economic collapse, flooding, and loss of aid from the failing Soviet Union resulted in the starvation of countless people."
The hunger was so severe for many that Joo recalled the story of one father in the Yanggang Province who became so "mentally deranged" that he killed his daughter and ate her flesh just to feed himself.
After getting married at the age of 22 and giving birth to her daughter, Joo began traveling to the border to buy rice from Chinese farmers. She would take the rice back to Hyesan and sell it in the markets.
Despite her hard work and efforts, Joo was the victim of domestic abuse which she suffered at the hands of her alcoholic husband. Additionally, she suffered great tragedy when her 3-year-old daughter died after being hit by a train when her husband was supposed to be looking after her.
After the birth of their son, the husband would later end up setting their house on fire while cooking for a party. The blaze caused third degree burns to the couple's son. But Joo could not afford to pay for the medical treatments for her son and he was discharged after about a month.
After divorcing her husband and moving back in with her parents, ICC reports that Joo was fooled into traveling to China for a restaurant job that she thought would help her pay for her son's medical expenses.
"This promising future pushed her to cross the Yalu river, to travel to a foreign land," Goh wrote. "May did not realize that she was walking into a trap."
Instead of going to work at a restaurant, Joo was reportedly forced into a "cycle of slavery with extremely low wages" by the person who assured her safe passage. Joo, like many other North Korean women looking to escape the country, was trafficked into China and sold as a bride.
"Despite her escape attempts, May was passed down from household to household," Goh reports. "She was sold to a Chinese man as his wife for $3,200. The broker convinced May to stay in China by telling her that she would eventually earn enough money to save her son."
It took Joo about two years before she could return home with the $1,300 she needed to help her son.
But in her attempt to return to North Korea, she was arrested by border guards since it is a crime for North Korean citizens to defect from the country. She hid the money she saved for her son in her anus for days until she finally had to relieve herself. The money would end up being stolen by a prison official.
As the U.S. State Department recently estimated, as many as 80,000 to 120,000 people languish in North Korea's prison camps for crimes such as defection or Christian worship. Like many others, Joo was forced to do hard labor.
"Defectors were treated worse than the pigs they were tending," Goh wrote. "Prison guards often raped and sexually assaulted female prisoners, including May. Forced abortion was common for women carrying babies of Chinese husbands."
Joo was released on bail about a month later and returned home to Hyesan, where she was informed that her family had lost touch with her ex-husband and her son.
Since Joo lost both her son and daughter, she decided to move back to China, where she returned to her Chinese husband and had another daughter.
However, she didn't find much relief in China because she also suffered abuse at the hands of her Chinese husband. After four years, she decided it was time to leave her life of pain behind.
Joo eventually wound up in a detention center in Thailand, where there were other refugees who fled from their countries, including other North Korean women.
Joo would end up joining a Christian coalition in 2012 where she would learn of the one true God. Like many other North Koreans, she grew up with the assumption of the Kim family being some sort of deity.
She claimed that she decided to fast in hopes that God would place her in the United States as a refugee. Her wish would become a reality on the third day of her fast when she learned that she would be resettled in Colorado.
Not long after she was placed, Joo was diagnosed with cancer.
"She praised God because she could have waited in that detention center for years without knowledge of her acceptance or rejection," Goh stated. "Now, she could have a surgery at Colorado University Hospital by the most reputable medical staff in the area, where she also received chemotherapy. The United States, the very country she believed to be full of evil Yankees, gave her a second chance at life."
ICC reports that Joo's faith continued to grow when she moved to Los Angeles and met Pastor Young Gu Kim.
In 2016, however, she was involved in a serious car accident and months later, her cancer returned.
According to Goh, Joo again beat "the sting of death" because she prayed for God to heal her so she can bring her kids to the U.S. to receive a proper education.
"There has been no greater grace and happiness in my life than to be born again as a child of God," she was quoted as saying.
North Korea has ranked for the past 16 years as the worst country in the world when it comes to the persecution of Christians, according to Open Doors USA's 2018 World Watch List.
Joo is one of many North Korean defectors who have spoken out about the abuses and persecution they suffered at the hands of the North Korean government.
In 2015, another North Korean defector shared her story at another event in Washington, D.C. She detailed how she was tortured in "re-education labor camps." At one point, she said, that a guard electrocuted her by sticking an electric wand in her mouth.
"So they put it to my head, my body, everywhere. And then they put it into my hands. It is painful. I was screaming. Then they put the baton in my mouth, so my whole mouth is so hurt, and I couldn't drink, couldn't eat and couldn't talk," the defector said. "They still asked information. And then, they give me shock chains on my ankles."
Joo's testimony comes after Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions announced last week that victims of domestic abuse and gang violence won't generally qualify for asylum under federal law.
Activists have argued that limiting accepted grounds for asylum will put thousands of foreign nationals, especially abused women, seeking asylum in the United States at risk of being sent back to their abusers.
Last week, Sessions attempted to justify the policy by arguing that the asylum system was being abused under the Obama administration. He told a gathering of Justice Department immigration lawyers that the number of asylum claims jumped to 94,000 in 2016 when there were only 5,000 claims in 2009.