Meet Charles - A North Korean Living in the United States
Charles escaped from North Korea and made the dangerous journey through China without the help of a rescue network. We met Charles after he resettled in the United States and were able to connect him with Coding Dojo, a coding boot camp and Liberty in North Korea partner, that generously provides free programming education to North Koreans. We've become great friends with Charles and recently he was excited to share his story with you.
My name is Charles. I was born on October 1st, 1994. I grew up without the love of my parents because my father left us when I was five years old and my mother passed away six years later from starvation. For years, I had to figure out how to live alone. I begged for food from strangers on the street, battling starvation and freezing weather. One day my stepbrother came to find me and take me in. I lived with him for a while and when I was 14 years old he brought me to my father in China. Life was so much better in China and I remember thinking there would be no more starvation and no more begging for a place to sleep.
Yet nine months later, the Chinese police came to our house and arrested my family.
We begged the Chinese police to let us go but they wouldn’t listen. Instead, we were kept in a Chinese jail for two weeks. It was when I was sent back to North Korea after this two week period that I realized that no happiness existed any longer -- the happiness that I had felt had been only temporary. The North Korean government questioned me, abused me, and forced me to work as punishment even though I was only sixteen.
Each meal consisted of a single piece of corn.
After eight months, I was finally released. I was just skin and bones - I had almost starved to death.
Without any money, I knew I had to find work. I began working in a coal mine which allowed me to buy rice to eat. Work in the coal mine was very risky -- I saw people lose their arms and legs as they were smashed under the rocks. I was afraid and I couldn’t help thinking that I would soon lose an arm or a leg myself. After working in the mine for a year, I realized I couldn’t stay in North Korea any longer. I knew how long and hard escaping North Korea would be without money or food, and I understood that if I was caught I could be killed. But I wanted to take these risks instead of continue working at the coal mine. I knew I could leave - I just needed to be brave.
My journey began when I boarded a train to take me closer to the border of China and North Korea. I was riding illegally and though I managed to hide during most of the ride I was at one point caught by the train security without my birth certificate. They locked me in a room with plans to kick me off at the next stop. I felt every piece of hope inside of me break because I knew they would send me to jail. Then, as the train slowed, I realized that I might be able to escape through the window.
With my heart pounding in my throat I opened the window and jumped out.
Still, I had more to go. I walked for hours, illegally boarded a second train, and then, finally, I was at the border of China and North Korea.
I remember feeling excitement and happiness when I reached the border, but I also felt worry because I knew I had to cross the Tumen River. The land surrounding the river had constant security and if I was caught I would be shot. I hid in tall grass for six hours, waiting for darkness. Finally, I took a deep breath and stepped into the water. I was halfway across when the river picked up. I almost fell and in my fear I let out a scream before I could catch myself.
Suddenly, I felt a light on my head. A border guard screamed, “Come back here or we'll shoot you.”
I was terrified, and I thought I would never make it because the current kept pulling me under, but I just kept swimming. At last, I made it to the river’s shore.
My journey did not end when I got to China. I traveled by foot, van, bus, motorcycle, and boat. My shoes fell apart and my feet bruised and bled. I went for days without food and water and there were times when I wanted to give up. I cried many days until I couldn’t cry anymore because I was too dehydrated. When I made it to my father’s house, I expected him to welcome me, but he beat me and asked me why I had come to him. I saw that he did not want me. He asked me to leave and he sent me away with his first wife. Together, his wife and I escaped the eyes of many police officers and finally made it to Southeast Asia where I was safe. For months I stayed in a Korean embassy refugee camp and then an international refugee camp where I was finally helped to come to the United States.
In those months and years when I was struggling to survive, my dreams and hopes for a better life kept me going.
I told myself every day that I could make it better -- that one day, somehow, I would change my life, and I kept dreaming about this life. Eventually, I realized that I couldn’t just wait for this dream of a better life to come true -- I had to make it happen.
_____Charles has shared his incredible story at many events to help grow the movement of support for the North Korean people. We are honored to be able to work with him and we are grateful to you for making it all possible! Thank you.
Humans of North Korea: This is freedom
I got foreign media from my dad. He was a member of the Korean Workers Party and many of his friends were security agents. They confiscated a lot of foreign media and gave it to my dad and he would bring it home.
Some of my most vivid memories are getting together with my friends at someone’s house, shutting off all the lights, and secretly watching South Korean dramas. It was exhilarating. If you heard anything outside, you’d get startled and think,
“Did they come to arrest us? Are we going to jail now?” It was thrilling doing things we knew we shouldn’t do.
Everything portrayed in the South Korean dramas was so clean and everyone seemed so wealthy. I used to think “Wow, there is such a world out there.” We were taught that South Korea was a poor country but I wondered, “Why can’t we live like that?”
I wanted to wear clothes from the dramas but I couldn’t find them anywhere. We used to get a lot of used clothes from the market down by the harbor. You either find used clothes or fabric and have a tailor make the outfit for you. After three or four days of wearing a new style, everyone would be wearing the same thing because it looked so cool.
My designs were very popular. If I started wearing something new, there was always someone who would wear similarly styled clothes because the number of South Korean dramas that inspired us was so limited. Girls would ask me where I got my clothes and if I wanted to exchange outfits. Bartering was very common and sometimes they’d offer their more expensive clothes in exchange for mine.
But you had to look out for the Inspection Unit. If they caught you wearing jeans and a hoodie, they’d cut the bottom of the jeans with scissors. My sister and brother were older than me so their friends were sometimes in the Inspection Unit. If I knew the person, I would just tell them, “I’ll go change right now” or “I’ll give you these jeans but please don’t cut the bottoms off” and I would go get it back from them later.
The regime doesn’t want people wearing those kinds of clothes. I think it’s because things like jeans symbolize freedom. North Korean society is so restricted that if they allowed jeans there would be no end to what people would want to wear.
Even now in South Korea, every time I put on a pair of jeans I think, “This is freedom.”
- Jihyun Kang escaped North Korea in 2009. She now works in the fashion industry in Seoul.