A Reason to Live: An Interview with Hae Sun

July 14, 2015

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.

North Korean Refugee Rescues: An Update from Our Field Manager

June 1, 2023

Over the past few years, the impact of COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on the day-to-day lives of North Korean people. Pandemic-related border lockdowns, increased surveillance, and unprecedented restrictions made it impossible for North Koreans to escape and reach freedom.

After a painstakingly long pause on rescues, at the end of 2022 we were finally able to start moving people safely again. Our field team has worked tirelessly to establish new, viable routes and adapt to circumstances on the ground. Navigating unprecedented restrictions and developing new routes has led to significantly higher and extremely volatile rescue costs, but our commitment is stronger than ever to help North Korean refugees reach freedom.

We recently sat down with our field manager, Jennifer* to hear directly about the current needs, challenges, and potential of this new era of rescues.

Could you give us a general overview of the situation in China? 

So much has changed since the start of the pandemic. Activists have been kicked out of the country; brokers no longer want to do this work because of the increased surveillance and restrictions. The number of underground rescue networks has shrunk significantly. Navigating these challenges puts us at higher risk, which means that we have to use more resources, including people on the ground, to guarantee that our groups move safely. Because of the increased costs, we soon might have to ask people to wait to be rescued and it’s agonizing, especially because timing is critical in the underground railroad. There are very few moments when everything aligns and it is safe to travel, but because we don’t have funds, North Korean refugees lose those rare, precious opportunities. The North Koreans I’ve been in communication with are living in constant fear because of the increased use of security technology by the state, such as facial recognition with AI. On top of that, domestic violence continues to be a serious issue for many North Korean women who were trafficked or forcibly married in China. 

Is there a risk of being sent back to North Korea right now?

Refugees who are caught in China are forcibly sent back to North Korea where they are severely punished. However, because of the pandemic, North Korea sealed its borders in January 2020 and has yet to reopen them. This means that repatriation hasn’t been possible yet, but we are hearing rumors that North Korea will start receiving people again soon. 

Many people who have tried to escape were arrested and we’ve heard that currently, there are a large number of North Korean refugees in Chinese prisons. 

What kind of situations are people escaping from in China?

It’s mostly North Korean women who were trafficked or forcibly married to Chinese men. Some have been living in China for several years and the pandemic left them stranded with no way to escape. We had heard that some of these women were facing even worse treatment from their Chinese husbands than before. The people who arrived in China in 2019 or early 2020 only had a very short period of time to learn the language, culture, and to adjust before having to quarantine. It has been much more difficult for these people to try to escape from China.

More recently, some of the refugees we’re in communication with have serious health issues. But they can’t go to the hospital because they’re not Chinese citizens and would risk being arrested and sent back to North Korea. They are hoping to make it to South Korea to get the healthcare they need. 

And what are some of the challenges that North Koreans in China face day-to-day? 

They can’t go outside. There was already a lack of freedom to travel and move around freely before the pandemic, but it has only gotten worse since then. When I speak with them, it feels like they’re losing hope. The reality of how difficult and expensive the journey has become is discouraging, especially because they hear about people who attempted the journey and were caught and arrested. So for people who were connected with us recently, many were shocked to hear about our work. They said it was almost surreal because they didn’t think it was possible to get to freedom at this time. 

What motivated these people to leave North Korea in the first place? 

It’s different depending on the person. There are usually personal circumstances that lead them to look for better opportunities in China or South Korea. Many people are tricked into human trafficking. Some women choose to live with a Chinese husband of their own will. They believe it’s better to live in China in this way rather than live in North Korea. 

What have been the biggest challenges for you?

While I'm very grateful that we've been able to resume rescues, it's a shame that we can only move a limited number of people due to increased costs and heightened security. I stay in close contact with refugees in China who are hoping to reach freedom, and some are in urgent situations. A woman who was 4 months pregnant had to make the journey before her belly got too big. Some refugees have health conditions that need immediate treatment, but they’re unable to go to the hospital. My hope is that we can rescue as many people as possible so they can experience freedom and live the full lives that they deserve.

Since restarting rescues last December, the significant increase in costs have depleted our rescue and resettlement funds, leaving many North Korean refugees waiting, once again, for an opportunity to escape. Your support is needed now more than ever. 

Throughout the month of June, all one time gifts made here will go 100% towards our rescue and resettlement efforts. In honor of World Refugee Day 2023 and the countless people waiting for their rare and precious opportunity to reach freedom, give a gift today. 

Give Today

*Jennifer is a pseudonym used to protect our field manager’s identity and avoid compromising this work.

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