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.
Squid Game and the Stories of North Korean Defectors
**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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.