The Moment I Chose Freedom
I remember sitting in an empty apartment.
There was nothing. No bed, no chair, no dishes, no clothes. I sat on the floor and stared at the wall for hours, wondering “what do I do now?” I was alone in a new country. I had lost all my friends and I had no idea what happened to my family.
It all started over a dinner in Beijing. I am from North Korea’s elite class and I was one of the few university students that was allowed to study abroad. In China, I met a few South Korean students and we became friends. One night over dinner they began talking about human rights in North Korea. They criticized my country and I was so confused. What are human rights? What is a dictatorship? What is freedom?
I grew up very comfortably in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang. I never went hungry and I could buy whatever I wanted. I even owned a South Korean computer and I played video games on it. But there were also moments when I questioned things. There was the time I was interrogated for 3 days for giving a friend some South Korean movies. Or the time my dad had to bribe the police to let me go.
But I thought it was like that everywhere. I cried in the taxi on the ride home that night. I was so frustrated that I didn’t have the words to defend my homeland. I went back to my dorm room and began searching the internet for information on human rights.
My idea of North Korea died that night.
The place I called home and the only system I had ever known was all a lie. I couldn’t stop crying as I watched a documentary about North Korea’s political prison camps. I didn’t go to class after that. I stopped hanging out with most of my friends and spent most of my time reading and learning about things I had never known about my country.
A couple weeks later I was at an ice rink in Beijing. As I was watching these little Chinese kids skate around so carefree, something broke deep inside me. I thought about the North Korean children in the documentaries who would never get to enjoy something like this. That’s when I knew I had to do something.
I began devouring books about democracy and freedom. I watched more documentaries and read the political classics like Plato’s The Republic.
If the regime discovered I was reading that book, it could have cost me my life.
But I couldn’t kill my curiosity. I couldn’t unlearn what I now knew and I definitely couldn’t go back to North Korea.
One morning I received a call from the North Korean embassy in Beijing. They asked me to come in because they said something was wrong with my visa. Nothing like this had ever happened before so it seemed strange. I was convinced that they knew what I had been reading and thinking about. I agreed to come in and hung up.
I never went to the embassy.
I destroyed my phone and ID cards that day and left my dorm room with some cash. A couple days later I found a South Korean pastor and he helped me find a way to get safely to South Korea.
It has been six years since I sat in that empty apartment on my first day as a free South Korean citizen. There was a moment while I sat there where I began to question everything. Did I make the wrong choice? What did I do to my family? Will I really be okay on my own now?
But then I reminded myself—I came here with a purpose: to learn about democracy and to help my people get their freedom. So I put on my shoes and went to buy groceries for the first time.
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.