New Realizations: An Interview with Hae Ri
Hae Ri escaped from North Korea out of fear that she would be sent to a political prison camp for watching South Korean TV shows after it happened to her friend's family. After arriving in China, she connected with our networks and made the journey to safety in South Korea. Today she is successfully resettled and has been working toward her goals. She is currently studying to be a nurse and took part in our English Teaching & Cultural Exchange Program.
Anna, one of our resettlement assistance coordinators, recently met up with Hae Ri to learn more about her life in North Korea and how she is doing now. Read the interview below:
Anna: Did you want to move to South Korea?
Hae Ri: After graduating from high school, I learned a lot of things about South Korea through CDs and DVDs and the stories from my mom and dad after their trips to China.
The crackdown on CDs and DVDs were not that harsh until I entered 4th grade. It wasn’t a sudden change, but a gradual one. When more people have access to CDs, you notice the change in their awareness.
When I saw the world outside of North Korea in those CDs and DVDs, I was amazed and I hoped I could see it before I died.
I couldn’t believe I was actually in South Korea when I got here because it felt like a dream. I often wished to go to South Korea during middle school whenever I watched foreign films at my friend’s house.
Funny thing is, officers and the elite are the ones who have easy access to these things. My friend's father’s job was security related, so I was able to watch many dramas at her house. One day her house was searched and her parents were sent away, so she stayed at our other friend's house. She could not keep herself from watching “Stairway to Heaven” though, so me, my friend, and my friend’s aunt all watched it too. She was eventually caught.
In a political prison camp, you are not treated as a human being and are beaten over and over. People were called in one by one, and this made me worried. If you come from a powerful family or have connections, you may be able to get yourself out of there, but that did not apply to me. If I went there, there was no way out and I would be blamed for everything. That made me determined to leave North Korea as soon as I could.
Anna: What would you like to tell to your friends who watched films together in North Korea?
Hae Ri: We shared everything when we were at school because we were the closest friends, but now I am the only one who is living in this place we all dreamed of going to. It is frustrating that I don’t know how they are doing while I am living my dream.
Anna: Do you think about your hometown a lot?
Hae Ri: I imagine what it is like there now. When I talk to my uncle over the phone, it hurts me to hear that people are having a hard time finding food every day. I also miss my friends. It would be great to reunite with them.
Anna: What is the first thing you want to do with your friends?
Hae Ri: I want to travel. I was told that Jeju Island is beautiful, and I would like to visit with my friends. That is what motivates me to do well until they can join me. I am sorry that I couldn’t even say goodbye to my best friend. It would be wonderful to see my friends again and enjoy this freedom together.
Anna: What is the biggest difference between North and South Korea?
Hae Ri: There are just too many to list and more differences than commonalities. Because there was no freedom in North Korea, after I finished school there, I didn't work. Even though I learned skills, there was no place to use them. I didn’t have any specific plans for what I should do or hopes for the future. I felt powerless, thinking that there was going to be nothing to receive in return for my hard work.
Anna: What have you achieved since your resettlement in South Korea?
Hae Ri: Being a nurse was one of the best jobs for women in North Korea. There was a school for that, but it's usually for people who have enough money for the tuition, which I couldn’t afford. Even if you went there, studying might not be your priority because people just need their degree and just need to know how to use a needle to work. Of course, I wanted to go there.
It was still hard for me to decide to study once I came to South Korea, but then a friend from church suggested that I should begin studying since I am still very young. I thought I really would achieve nothing if I continue to live like this. So now I am preparing for college, and I already passed the test to become a nursing assistant.
Anna: What was it like to hear that you were accepted?
Hae Ri: Well, I did feel a sense of accomplishment, but at the same time, it felt like a beginning for something new. I wasn’t satisfied to have the story end there. But you know, they say a journey of thousand miles begins with the first step. I just made my first step, and I need to continue moving forward. It’s also important that I don’t rush things too fast and work on one thing at a time, since I am new to a lot of things and there is a lot left to learn.
Anna: What was the first thing you tried after your resettlement?
Hae Ri: The first thing I wanted to eat was samgyeopsal (grilled pork). Back when I was in North Korea, I couldn’t afford to eat this so I would just eat fried vegetables. I only saw this through Korean dramas. In South Korea, you have a variety of foods to choose from, like pizza and hamburgers. My grandmother, who worked at Kaesong Industrial Complex, came back with a Coke one day. There was a picture on the bottle that looked like some kind of bread I didn't recognize—it was actually a picture of a hamburger! I didn’t like the taste of hamburger at first, but now I love it!
Anna: Did you visit your grandmother? Wasn’t Kaesong Industrial Complex far from where you lived?
Hae Ri: It took me two days to get to Kaesong. It was an arduous journey. I would go there once every three to four years by train. There is no express line to Kaesong, so the train would stop at several stations, and I had to wait for several hours at the station just standing or lying on the ground because there weren’t enough seats.
In North Korea, you need a certificate to move to different places, which is especially difficult for Kaesong because there is a lot of exchange going on there with South Korea. So one day, I walked for a full day to Kaesong. While I was climbing a mountain to get there, I came across the military. The military personnel asked where I was going and why I was going to Kaesong. Then you have to give all the food and everything you have in your bag so they will let you go. When I first came to South Korea, I wondered if South Korea is a lot smaller than North Korea because it only takes three hours to get almost anywhere here. It would take two days in North Korea to get to a place you can go within three hours in South Korea. Not only the transportation is bad, but there is always the risk of getting caught while you are on the move.
Anna: What was difficult when you got to South Korea?
Hae Ri: My accent. I hated to hear that no one would take me for a part-time worker because I am from North Korea. I hated myself for being born in North Korea, and I thought people were staring at me because I was weird. This made me think more about the reasons for others to keep a distance from me. Changing my accent was difficult.Studying was a big challenge as well. Back in North Korea, I didn’t have much hope for achieving anything because of my family background. My accent is a challenge for daily living, but learning how to study was the most difficult challenge for fulfilling my dream.
Anna: What were your first experiences with the outside world?
Hae Ri: At home, no one really had sincere respect for Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un. Watching the things about Kim Jong-un, I thought it was ridiculous that people actually cried for the leader. However, I was shocked to realize the truth about the Kim family. I thought Kim Jong-un lived a very modest life until I was in Hanawon and learned that he spends so much on living a luxurious life, which could instead be spent saving so many people who are starving. I watched the Korean film called, “When the Azalea Blooms” when I was in China. The film was about Kim Jong-il, and that film also opened my eyes and made me realize what was actually going on.
Anna: What did you think when you first watched the film?
Hae Ri: I didn’t believe it at first, but when I watched it again, things became clear. There is a huge difference between knowing the truth and not knowing it. I want more people to hear the message and share what I realized. People get lost in their daily lives without thinking about their dreams.
Anna: Is there any message you want to give to your friends?
Hae Ri: I believe unification will take place in the future, so I have to resettle here successfully so I can be an example for my friends later on and lead them. That keeps me working hard even when things are tough. That’s what my mom thinks too. I need to prove that my decision was right and that I can do well here. I always wish the best for my friends in North Korea. When I think about my future, I am always thinking of ways to help North Koreans, and ways to return the help I received from LiNK to society.
It is just a dream for now, but I would like to do something meaningful, like sending aid materials to support North Korea.
We are only able to provide crucial support for North Koreans like Hae Ri with your help!
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.