North Korea defector battles cyberbullies in the U.S.

By Elizabeth Shim
North Korean defector Cho Jin-hye (3rd-L), meeting with former President George W. Bush in 2008. Cho says she has fought off rumors about her identity for nine years. Photo courtesy of Cho Jin-hye/Facebook
North Korean defector Cho Jin-hye (3rd-L), meeting with former President George W. Bush in 2008. Cho says she has fought off rumors about her identity for nine years. Photo courtesy of Cho Jin-hye/Facebook

NEW YORK, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- North Korean defector Cho Jin-hye remembers reaching a low point when she became the target of cyberbullying in online defector communities.

The stinging accusations from other defectors, alleging Cho had feigned her North Korean identity in order to gain asylum in the United States, were so overwhelming she said she contemplated suicide.


"I was driving from the journalist's office to the lawyer's office," Cho told UPI by phone, recalling a trip she was making in an effort to clear her name. "I was crying."

Cho, unable to drive in her emotional state, said she parked her car on a bridge.

"It was really crazy," she said. "I was trying to kill myself."

Cho said a driver who happened to come across her stopped his car. He persuaded her to step back and pray.

Groundless rumors

That was 2014. Five years later, Cho is still struggling with unfounded rumors she is somehow not related to her mother and her younger sister, although they fled North Korea together and lived for a time in China.


Cho, who is in her early 30s and lives in Duluth, Ga., said her troubles began when another U.S.-based North Korean defector began to fabricate stories about her background.

The defector, an older woman, has also been active in North Korean human rights.

Friendly relations initially prevailed between Cho and her opponent. Cho claims the defector became "jealous" when Cho began to make more public appearances in the United States.

But Cho's rival may have also tried to build close ties to Cho and her family.

Cho said the woman found and introduced her to a distant relative who had resettled in the United States. The woman said the individual she found was an aunt. Cho and her mother met the defector and concluded she was indeed a relative but Cho's father's first cousin, once removed, and not his sibling.

"After that [my opponent] started making rumors about me," Cho said.

Problems with trust

The row between the two defectors may be puzzling. North Korea is notorious for its dismal human rights record. Most defectors suffer abuse at the hands of authorities if they are forcibly repatriated to the North, an experience that could bind victims with a common cause.

A sense of solidarity may not prevail among defectors, however, says Markus Bell, a North Korea expert and migration researcher based in Yangon, Myanmar.


Bell, who has studied North Korean defectors in the South, said North Koreans often don't trust each other because of the political situation on the Korean Peninsula.

"There is often a wariness about who might be informing for the North Korean government," Bell told UPI by email. "This makes it more difficult for new arrivals to forge meaningful relationships."

Bell said lack of trust among defectors sometimes boils over into anger and bitterness.

"Because of the mutual mistrust among North Koreans in exile, individuals like these can become focal points of resentment, susceptible to accusations that could have them sent to China or South Korea," Bell said. "It's absurd that Ms. Cho's asylum in the United States could now be up for debate. She was granted asylum and that should be that."

Cho, a naturalized U.S. citizen who resettled in 2008, said the nine-year battle for her reputation has led her to believe her antagonist could even be collaborating with the North Korean regime.

Pyongyang's propaganda service Uriminzokkiri has targeted Cho with a video that includes a "testimony" from a North Korean woman who claims Cho faked her identity and that she was, in fact, Korean-Chinese. The story aligns with the rumors that Cho says was started by her opponent. The official statement from North Korea has been upsetting, Cho said.


The defector, who is rebuilding her life after escaping from North Korea as a child in 1998, never had it easy.

She did have relatives in China -- her father's stepbrother and his family -- but they met only once.

"When we crossed the border, they did not help my family, so I never met with them again," she said.

Strife in China

Out of options, Cho and her mother "stayed" with an ethnic Korean-Chinese man, living with him for four years.

"He was a drunkard," she said. "After he drank he would start yelling at my mother, beating my mother, using a stick to beat me too, and my sister. We had a really difficult four years with him."

Cho lost her father during the catastrophic North Korean famine of the late '90s. Her family was notified of his death with a letter from the North Korean government.

The defector said her father was thrown into prison because he went to China to search for food.

"He passed away from hunger, torture," she said. "He had infections all over his body. They didn't give him medicine or water."

Cho is fighting for her reputation, but she says she is also concerned her struggles are giving the general public the wrong impression about North Korean defectors in the United States, a small community of about 200 people.


"I don't want people to think North Korean defectors are fighting each other over rumors."

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