A Reason to Live: An Interview with Hae Sun
Hae Sun was rescued while hiding in China in 2013. Now safely resettled in South Korea, she attends a two-year college as a business/Chinese major and she just finished her first semester. Choosing to go to college was not an easy decision for her. She was adjusting to the many differences in South Korean society and dealing with loneliness, low self-esteem, and anxiety issues. But, ultimately her drive to pursue her dreams was stronger than the challenges she faced. Now, she’s excited to achieve the goals she has set out for herself.
“When I got my acceptance letter to a two-year college in South Korea, I thought of my mom who is still in North Korea. I wished she could’ve heard the good news and congratulated me. I haven’t heard from her since I left North Korea a few years ago. I don’t even know whether she is still alive. I know she would be very proud of me for attending college.” - Hae Sun
Our resettlement coordinator Jihyun recently met up with Hae Sun to see how she has been doing since starting college. Read their conversation below:
Jihyun: “How was your first semester?”
Hae Sun: It was not easy at all. In the beginning, I struggled so much. There were so many things my South Korean classmates easily understood that I didn’t because of the different education systems between North Korea and South Korea. I also didn’t study for more than 10 years because I didn’t get a proper middle school/high school education in North Korea and spent a long time hiding in China.
I didn’t do well for my midterms, but did better for my finals. Throughout the semester there were many moments when I really wanted to give up and drop out of school because studying was so hard and things were difficult for me, but I didn’t give up.
Jihyun: “Other than studying what else was difficult during your first semester?”
Hae Sun: Well, making friends in college was not easy. You know, I am at least 10 years older than most other freshmen. I am still afraid that they might not feel comfortable being around me because I am a lot older and culturally different from them. Some students have been so nice to me and I shouldn’t think that way, but I still get self-conscious about my age and background, which I know hinders me from getting close to them. Next semester I will try to be around other students more without worrying about my age and background.
Jihyun: What was the best part of your first semester?
Hae Sun: I was able to clearly understand a lot of Chinese grammatical stuff, which I had struggled with for a while. I was hiding in China for a long time so I learned conversational Chinese through talking with Chinese people, but I never learned it in school, so there were still a lot of grammatical rules I didn’t understand. Since I started studying Chinese as my major, I have learned a lot of those rules. I am so so happy about it and thankful for my education.
Jihyun: “What was one of new things you started doing after coming to South Korea?”
Hae Sun: Volunteer work to help people in need. In North Korea, I never thought of helping other people because I had so many difficulties then. I have been part of a group of volunteers for the past year that gives food to homeless people in train stations in Seoul. The group consists of young resettled North Korean refugees like me and South Korean college students.
Even after I resettled to South Korea, I didn’t think of helping others because I didn’t have a lot and thought I had to resettle successfully first. But while volunteering through the group, I have realized that I don’t need to have a lot of money or time to help other people.
Sharing what I have with others and helping them makes me happy now. In North Korea and China when I was always in need, I thought only receiving could make me happy, but now I know giving also makes me happy. That is why I do the outreach volunteer work for the homeless.
Jihyun: What were some of the difficulties you had when you first came to South Korea?
Hae Sun: Before I came to South Korea, I thought I would be fine communicating with people here because we speak the same language, but I was not aware of a lot of the differences between the South Korean language and the North Korean language because the two countries have been separated for almost 70 years.
At first I struggled a lot. There were many times when I either didn’t understand South Koreans or they didn’t understand me due to our different accents and words. Although there are still words and expressions I don’t completely understand, I am a lot more used to it than when I first came here. I have learned a lot of new words and expressions while working different jobs with South Koreans and through attending college here.
Actually at the beginning of this semester, I didn’t understand a lot of words that other students would use because I am even more unfamiliar with words young people use here. Still, I get confused about some South Korean expressions and words and sometimes I still don’t understand what my professors say. I used to get stressed out about it so much, but now I try to give myself more grace about my language issues. I mean I will keep learning new things and trying to get used to them for the rest of my life here. I will just face them instead of avoiding or getting stressed about them. That is why I am in college so that I can learn, right?
Another difficulty was loneliness…I still feel lonely from time to time. I really miss my family. I actually had depression when I first came to South Korea because of loneliness. Now I don’t have depression anymore because of new friends I have made since I came to South Korea. My church community has especially made me feel loved and encouraged and has been helping me overcome loneliness and depression.
Jihyun: What is freedom to you?
Hae Sun: Freedom enables me to do what I want and visit the places and countries where I want to go as long as I have the willpower and make the effort. None of this was possible back in North Korea.
Jihyun: What do you want to say to people around the world who support you and other North Koreans?
Hae Sun: I really thank them from the bottom of my heart. They have never met me and they don’t know me, but they have supported me so much. Thanks to their support I am now enjoying my freedom and pursuing my college education. What is more moving to me is they have given me all the support without asking anything in return. I am so touched by their unconditional support. I cannot thank the supporters enough.
Jihyun: How do you want people in the world to see North Korea and the North Korean people?
Hae Sun: I want the world to distinguish between its people and its leaders. I know that the regime is bad and has done a lot of evil things, but the ordinary people are innocent.
Jihyun: What is the most important value in life?
Hae Sun: Having goals to achieve. I didn’t have a lot of goals until I came to South Korea. After escaping in my early 20s, I didn’t have any goals other than just surviving and not getting repatriated back to North Korea...I didn’t even want to live a long life. I just wanted to live until I turned 30. But now, I want to live for a long time because I have a lot of goals to achieve.
I would feel so sad if I only lived until I turned 30 now. That is not enough time to do all the things I want to do.
Jihyun: What are your future goals?
Hae Sun: I always wanted to go to college in North Korea and China, but it was not possible due to my social status and other obstacles in those countries. I am living that dream by attending college with a major I really enjoy studying. Now my goal for the future is to successfully finish college and get a job I am passionate about. I don’t know what kind of job I want yet, but I know I will find one if I keep doing my best in college.
You can help other North Korean refugees escape China and resettle successfully by donating to our work. Donate now.
Foreign Media in North Korea - How Kpop is Challenging the Regime
Movies, TV shows, and music hold power. They’re a way for us to connect through common experiences, reckon with different sides of humanity, and revel in the beauty of being here at all. They transport us to another time and place- perhaps one of our imaginations- and most importantly, allow us to dream and imagine a limitless future.
In recent years, South Korean media and entertainment has gained international recognition. People like Hyun Bin and Son Yejin, the stars of popular Korean drama Crash Landing on You, have become household names, while Parasite swept the 2020 Academy Awards and music from K-pop groups like BTS are charting globally.
Meanwhile, just across the border, North Korea remains one of the most closed societies in the world. Yet even in the “hermit kingdom,” foreign media is accelerating empowerment of the people and change within the country!
Forced Isolation and the Regime’s Information Monopoly
The North Korean government has maintained power for decades through a system of imposed isolation, relentless indoctrination, and brutal repression. A complete monopoly on information and ideas within the country has been key- outside media threatens to challenge the legitimacy of their propaganda, and by extension, their control.
The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea reported an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion as well as of the rights to freedom of speech, opinion, expression, and association.
The regime employs a range of strategies to enforce information control:
- Restricting movement across borders and within the country
- Random house searches
- Severe punishment, including public executions, to deter foreign media consumption and sharing
- Sophisticated digital surveillance
- Jamming phone signals and locating users through signal triangulation
- Mobile OS file signature system that only permits government-approved apps and files
The Spread of Foreign Media
Despite this isolation and unparalleled internal restrictions, the North Korean people have been quietly changing their country from within, including through foreign media access. Through market activity and the movement of people and goods across the Chinese border, they have forced the gradual opening up of their society. Movies and music are smuggled into the country on USBs, SD and MicroSD cards, and small portable media players, offering illicit access to information from the outside world.
With lights off and windows shuttered, North Koreans will watch foreign media despite the risks. If all else fails, bribes are a way for people to reduce punishment if caught. Most North Korean police and government officials rely on bribes to survive, and some defectors complain that they are actually the biggest consumers of foreign media because they confiscate so much.
Information Technology in North Korea
Within North Korea, a broad range of information technologies are available, although they should be registered with authorities. Laptops and computers officially run on a government operating system, Red Star OS, while the North Korean intranet, Kwangmyong, is air-gapped from the internet and heavily surveilled. However, in practice, many North Koreans have non-networked devices used for games, editing software, watching videos, and to copy, delete and transfer media on removable devices.
Mobile phones are also common with approximately 6 million on the North Korean network, meaning roughly 1 in 4 people have one. These North Korean phones generally cannot make international calls and the operating system limits users to approved state media (programs have been developed to bypass this security). On the other hand, smuggled Chinese phones can be used in border regions on the Chinese network. These have been crucial for staying in touch with relatives who have escaped or defected, who often send back money and information from the outside world.
Radios are the only channel of foreign media and news available real-time across the country. While they should officially be registered and fixed to North Korean stations, it is relatively easy to tamper with radio sets to pick up foreign broadcasts. In border regions, some TVs can also pick up live programming from South Korea and China. Traditionally, TVs were connected to DVD players, but newer LCD televisions also have direct USB input ports.
How Foreign Media Changes Perceptions
Among foreign media, entertainment from South Korea is particularly attractive, produced in the same base language by people with the same ancestry. They contain glimpses of rich and free realities just across the border. In comparison, domestic North Korean media seems old-fashioned and disingenuous, designed to reinforce the regime’s ideologies.
As North Koreans learn more about life, freedom and prosperity in the outside world, and their own relative poverty, the regime’s ideology and control are eroded.
“At first you see the cars, apartment buildings, and markets and you think it must be a movie set. But the more you watch, there’s no way it can be just a set. If you watch one or two [movies] it always raises these doubts, and if you keep watching you know for sure. You realize how well South Koreans and other foreigners live.”
- Danbi, escaped North Korea in 2011
Empowered by foreign media, North Koreans are exploring their creativity and potential through everyday acts of resistance- using South Korean slang, copying fashion styles, and sharing pop culture references. In this culture war, Kim Jong-un has called for crackdowns on "unsavory, individualistic, anti-socialist behavior" among young people to restrict freedom of expression.
Foreign media also facilitates shared acts of resistance. People will swap USB devices with trusted friends and neighbors, increasing confidence in one another through a symmetrical transaction. Some people may also watch and discuss movies and shows together, increasing the media’s subversive influence and creating social networks.
The Regime’s Response
During the pandemic, we’ve seen unprecedented levels of isolation and restrictions, closing off the country more than ever before. To buttress control, Kim Jong Un has simultaneously increased crackdowns and punishments on foreign media consumption. In December 2020, the “anti-reactionary thought law” made watching foreign media punishable by 15 years in a political prison camp.
While the situation is harrowing, the government’s extreme response underscores the power of foreign media. The regime recognizes that social changes driven by North Korean people are a threat to their authority and control in the long term.
Accelerating Foreign Media Access and Change
Moving forward, increasing access to outside information is one of the most effective ways to help the North Korean people and bring forward change.
Information and technology support for North Korean people has historically been an under-utilized and under-invested strategy. LiNK Labs is our area of work focused on this opportunity- we’re developing technologies, networks, and content to empower North Korean people with access to information and ideas from the outside world.