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A Reason to Live: An Interview with Hae Sun

July 14, 2015
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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Squid Game and the Stories of North Korean Defectors

October 18, 2021


Kang Sae-byeok from Squid Game as player 067
Via Netflix


**Warning: Contains plot spoilers


Netflix’s Squid Game has taken the world by storm, becoming the platform’s most-watched show debut and infiltrating popular culture. The high-stakes thriller juxtaposes nostalgic kid’s games with brutal consequences, hooking viewers with a compelling cast and pointed social commentary.


One of Squid Game’s most captivating characters is Kang Sae-byeok, a tough-as-nails North Korean defector who wants nothing more than to reunite her family. While she and her little brother managed to safely reach South Korea, their father was killed during the border crossing and mother was captured.


Sae-byeok’s story reflects the real experiences of the North Korean refugees we work with who have risked everything for freedom. Many were separated from family, have little support when resettling, and face prejudice.

The Perils of Defecting

Crossing the heavily guarded border between North and South Korea is virtually impossible. Instead, refugees must escape through China and journey 3000 miles through a modern-day-underground-railroad to safety in Southeast Asia. This has only become more difficult with pandemic-related restrictions on movement and border lockdowns.


A map of the route through China and Southeast Asia that North Korean refugees travel to safety


If caught fleeing North Korea or arrested in China, which doesn’t recognize defectors as refugees, North Koreans will be sent back and face harsh punishment - brutal beatings, forced labor, and even internment in a political prison camp. 


This is the reality that people like Sae-byeok’s mother face.

Still, thousands of North Koreans have risked everything to seek a better life. An estimated 33,000 refugees have resettled in South Korea.


“I wasn’t sure if I would see my family again because of the possibility of getting caught while escaping to China. Before I left, I got some opium and carried it underneath the collar of my shirt so I could take it to kill myself in case I got caught.”

- Joy, escaped through LiNK’s networks in 2013


Continue reading Joy’s story to freedom here.


Difficulty Assimilating

Once they reach safety and begin their new lives, refugees face a new set of challenges. Some have described the experience as stepping out of a time machine, 50 years into the future. Amidst figuring out the everyday intricacies of modern life, many refugees are still coping with the trauma of their past.


In addition to struggling to make ends meet, Sae-byeok faces social pressure and stigma as a North Korean. She deliberately masks her North Korean accent around everyone except her brother and is subjected to remarks about being a “communist” and “spy.” 


While it is not specified how her brother ended up in an orphanage, one can assume that Sae-byeok left him there in hopes that he’ll receive care and education that she cannot provide. Tragically, the difficulties of establishing a new life in South Korea separated her from her family once again.


Kang Sae-byeok and her younger brother at the orphanage in Squid Game
Via Netflix


“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...Another difficulty was loneliness…I still feel lonely from time to time. I really miss my family.”

- Hae-Sun, rescued while hiding in China in 2013


Read more from Hae-Sun’s experience starting a new life in South Korea here.


Working with Brokers

Hoping to bring her mother to South Korea, Sae-byeok was in contact with shady brokers who scammed her of her money. It can cost tens of thousands of dollars to fund these risky escapes, especially directly out of North Korea, and then from China to Southeast Asia.


With the prize money from the games, Sae-byeok hoped to reunite her family and live under one roof again.


Kang Sae-byeok’s wish to use the prize money from Squid Game to reunite her family
Via Netflix

This is Not Where the Story Ends

Working with the right people who can help safely smuggle people across borders is the real deal. Liberty in North Korea helps North Korean refugees escape safely through a modern-day underground railroad, without ANY cost or condition.*LiNK’s rescue efforts begin in China 


LiNK reunites families, supports their new lives in resettlement, and helps individuals, like Sae-byeok, reach their full potential in freedom.


When LiNK’s field staffer told me I was finally safe, I was overwhelmed. I had endured so much to make it this far - hard labor, imprisonment, and torture. And even though I was overjoyed to make it to freedom, I was deeply saddened that [my daughter] Hee-Mang wasn’t with me… I hold onto the dream that one day we will live together again.”

- Jo-Eun, escaped North Korea through LiNK’s network in 2018


Read the story of Jo-Eun’s journey to freedom here.


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When North Koreans successfully resettle, they become some of the most effective agents of change on the issue by sharing their stories with the world and sending money and information back to their families in North Korea. 

Kang Sae-byeok’s story has come to an end, but you can do something to stand with the North Korean people today.

Watch undercover footage from real rescue missions.

→ Read more stories from North Korean refugees.

Donate to make rescue missions possible.

→ Connect with the global movement for the North Korean people by following us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Your generous donation will rescue and support North Korean refugees
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