Yoon Ha's Story: Part 1 - Life in North Korea
Yoon Ha resettled to South Korea through LiNK’s network about a year ago. She recently shared her story with us. This is part one of three. Continue to part two.
When I was asked, “How was your life in North Korea?” for the first time, I just started crying because my life there was so hard. It was so hard.
When I was a little kid my mom left me, my younger sister, and my dad, because of our financial struggles. I felt so abandoned and unloved.
And even though I was young, I had to start working to contribute to my family’s finances. My sister and I would forage for plants in the mountains and riversides. We carried the herbs, roots, and pinecones on our backs, walking for three hours to get to the marketplace. We sold our stuff so we could get corn powder to eat. And then we would walk the three hours back to our house. It was very, very hard.
In my late teens my father passed away. I was devastated. After a few years of living with relatives, my sister and I moved back to live with our mom again. But we were still very poor. People would make fun of us for being so poor and not having a father around. I felt a lot of shame about my family and living situation.
When I was 22, my mom asked me to start living with a man much older than me to lessen the financial burden on my family. I didn’t like living with him at all.
I decided to leave my hometown to find a better life somewhere else. I walked for a few days to get to Hamhung, one of the biggest cities in North Korea, hoping I could find work there.
In the city, I did a lot of things to make money. I would sell gas lighters and secondhand vinyl. I had to do it secretly because it was illegal. And it never paid well--just enough to buy food. I was staying at homes, cheap inns, empty houses, and even sleeping on the streets and next to graves when I had to. Sometimes I got beaten by people from the city because they didn’t like that I was making money but wasn’t from there.
I worked there for many months, but I couldn’t save any money so I decided to go back to my mom’s place. My mom and my sister were still struggling, and having me back was a burden to them. So I left home again and walked to Pyongyang to find work. In North Korea you need a special permit to move to different cities, and I didn’t have one. I got caught and sent to jail for 10 days.
After I was released, I started walking to other cities again to find work. I knew I might get caught by the police again, but I couldn’t go home. I walked a lot. Walking was the only way I could travel to where I needed to go.
I made it to another town and found work crushing ore to extract gold. The work was illegal and we would do it secretly in people’s houses. In one of these houses, I got beat up and got kicked out. I didn’t do anything wrong; they just didn’t want to pay me. Even after that incident I continued to do the same work in other houses. For the first time in my life, I had made a decent amount of money--enough to buy 100 kg of corn.
I was so happy. I would be able to bring some money to my mom and sister so we could eat food for a while. I also missed my family, so I started heading home.
At a bus station on the way home, a woman and her daughters asked me to get water for them. They stole all of my money and ran away.
I couldn’t handle all the bad things that kept happening to me. It felt like my life was hopeless and pathetic. I went to a river near the bus station to commit suicide. But right when I was about to jump into the river, all of sudden a thought came over me.
“Why do I have to die? Why? I've not done anything wrong. I'm still only in my early 20s.” I made the decision to live and make the better life I wanted.
Instead of going home, I started walking again. I just kept going north. Even though I was so hungry, the hope for a better life drove me to keep walking.
After walking for days, I somehow arrived in Hyesan, a city on the border with China. I saw many people like me, who had been wandering around in search of food and work. I had travelled to many different parts of North Korea, and came to the conclusion that life was difficult everywhere in my country.
A couple in their 30s or 40s approached me and asked how old I was. I told them my age, 23. They asked if I wanted to go to China. They said I could have a better life there.
“A better life? Yeah, I would do anything to have a better life.”
So I decided to go to China with them. I was so focused on having a better life; I didn’t ask many questions. A few days later, in the darkness of night, we crossed the river into China.
Continue reading with part two.
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.