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.
The Red Box: Misunderstandings and Stereotypes about North Koreans
For North Korean refugees, resettling in a new society comes with many challenges. One of these challenges is overcoming the stereotypes about North Korea and the North Korean people.
In the latest episode of The Red Box, our North Korean friends and 2019 LiNK Advocacy Fellows talk about the struggle of of facing stereotypes after resettling in South Korea.
Watch as Jeongyol, Joy, Dasom, and Ilhyeok answer your questions in The Red Box Series!
Read the transcript of this episode below!
All: Welcome to the Red Box!
Are there any misunderstandings about the North Korean people that make you feel uncomfortable?
Joy: When I first came to South Korea, was working part-time at a convenience store. I was still very young and had a very heavy North Korean accent.
In South Korea, when a customer enters the part-time employees don't really greet them. But I used to greet the customers standing and say "Welcome!" so people would ask me where I'm from.
I'd tell them that I'm from North Korea. They'd say "oh really?" After they get their stuff and put them on the counter, they'd asked me if I ever had jjajangmyun or pork in North Korea? They'd ask me these types of questions. Some people ask because they don't know but sometimes they ask questions that insinuate that we were all so poor in North Korea. Not everyone in North Korea is like that. There's people who live well too
Jeongyol: If someone asked me that, I’d tell them I might've lived a wealthier life there [in North Korea].
Joy: So those types of questions made me feel a little uncomfortable.
Jeongyol: A lot of people think like that.
Dasom: People think that all North Koreans are poor, ignorant, and uneducated. People have told me that even though I must have starved and lived poorly in North Korea, I don't look the part.
Maybe some people did or didn't have enough food to eat. There are poor people and there are rich people too. Every country is the same — it’s the same in South Korea too. There are rich, poor, and homeless people in South Korea too. I don't think it's right to judge someone like that. It made me feel very uncomfortable
Jeongyol: When I was in high school, there was a soccer match between North Korea and South Korea. But all of a sudden they asked me which team I'm cheering for. So I was startled by the question.
Should I say I'm cheering for North Korea or South Korea? What's my identity?
Even though I'm living in South Korea as a South Korean citizen, they didn't recognize the fact that I'm also South Korean. That we were the same people.
So at the time I answered, "I'm not cheering for either team. I don't care who wins. I’m just watching the game for fun.” It went over smoothly but afterward I kept thinking about it. But now that I think about it…It wasn't my choice to be born in North Korea.
Jeongyol: I could've been born in the U.S. but somehow I was born in North Korea.
Anyone could've been born in North Korea.
It's not anyone's fault. So from that moment on, I became confident. I am just who I am.
Ilhyeok: I have this older friend from China. During holidays like in January, he'd always ask me if I am visiting my hometown. Whenever he asks me that question, I want to be able to tell him that I'm am going [home] but I can't because I can't go back so I just don’t answer him. When he asked me if I'm going home, I just wished that I could return home one day.
It's heartbreaking not being able to go home.
During Chuseok and New Year's Day, those two holidays are when I miss home the most.
Joy: One uncomfortable question for me was when I was in school or met people was when they asked me why there's no riot or uprising in North Korea. Sometimes people ask because they really don't know but sometimes they insinuate that we're cowards.
And with that viewpoint, they ask why we won't revolt against the government. I try to explain but they still insist and say, ”But you guys still should have done something.” That makes me a little sad.
In North Korea, there's a system of monitoring each other. So if one person says something bad, they'd get reported right away and taken.
Jeongyol: In South Korea there were a lot of civil riots so they ask why we didn't do anything in North Korea.
Joy: But it's a very different situation.
Jeongyol: The system doesn't allow it.
What also made me uncomfortable was if I did something wrong, people would blame it because I'm North Korean.
They say things like, “It's because she's North Korean.” That made me upset. Other people say bad things and make mistakes too. But because of one mistake they say all North Koreans are like that and that I wouldn't know things or be able to do things because I'm from North Korea.
I hated hearing that so I wouldn't tell anyone that I was from North Korea.