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Joy's Story: Part 1 - Growing Up in North Korea

December 17, 2019
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I didn’t have a dream for my future when I was a child because my family was just trying to survive. My dad ran a farm, but one day the regime took all of his property. We had to start illegally selling wood to make money. We were always worried that we would get caught. We lived in constant fear and anxiety.

I remember not being able to eat for two days. My parents went into the mountains to find grass to boil and eat. Once we couldn't find grass, so my dad and I went to someone's cornfield. He carried me on his back and, when we got there, we pretended that I had to pee so I could go into the field and eat the unripe corn.

Eventually things got too hard for my mom, so she divorced my dad and left us. Life was so hard back then.

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Because we never had enough money, there were a lot of arguments between my dad and my stepmom. There were other issues too—my sister’s husband tried to rape me. My father and stepmother also tried to marry me off when I was a teenager. I understood that they couldn’t keep taking care of me because of the economic situation, but I didn’t want to get married. When they set up a meeting with a prospective partner, I didn’t go but lied to my parents that I had and didn’t like him at all, mentioning a lot of bad things about the guy although I had never met him. I felt bad for him, but I had to do that because I didn’t want to get married.

Eventually, I decided to leave for China, hoping that I would have a better life there. I didn’t want to go to South Korea at the time because I heard a lot of rumors about how difficult living there was for North Korean people. Instead, I wanted to find an old Chinese couple, like my grandma and grandpa, who would let me live with them in exchange for taking care of them. I was naive.

I cried a lot at the idea of leaving my family and friends. I couldn’t tell my family that I was going to China, but I did tell some of my close friends. I asked them to give my goodbye letters to my family. I felt so apologetic to my father that I didn’t do much for him as his daughter. Before then I didn’t like my father because, after the regime took away his farm, he started drinking a lot and not taking care of our family, yet I just couldn’t help feeling heartbroken leaving him. I also got to spend 3 days with my mom who lived far away from my family before I went to China. At the time I got to have a lot of conversations that brought us a lot of healing and reconciliation.

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.

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I found a broker who gave money to the border guards so they didn’t patrol when I was supposed to cross the Tumen river. When I got to the middle of the river I felt that the ice was quite thin so I had to crawl to cross the rest of the river that was covered by snow. I didn’t realize that moment but later after I arrived I realized that my feet got so swollen because they got frozen from crawling the river in the snow. I couldn’t feel my feet for a while.

Continue reading Part 2 of Joy's story, focused on her time spent hiding in China.

You can support North Koreans like Joy by donating to our work. To date, we have helped over 1200 North Korean refugees reach freedom and safety through rescues. Learn how you can help.

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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