Charles escaped from North Korea and made the dangerous journey to safety without the help of a rescue. He resettled to the US in 2012, completing high school and soon after taking the opportunity to participate in a rigorous coding bootcamp through a partner of Liberty in North Korea, Coding Dojo. Charles is now attending community college and pursuing his own coding project. We had a chance to meet with Charles this summer to learn more about his life in North Korea and his new coding passion. Read the interview is below. Charles is also fundraising for rescues with us!
LiNK: Why did you choose to resettle to the US?
Charles: I was born between a North Korean mom and a Chinese dad, which put me in a difficult situation. I wasn’t accepted into South Korea because my Dad is Chinese, even though I had proof of having been captured once in China for being a North Korean refugee. So I applied for refugee status through the United Nations and resettled in the US.
LiNK: You attended Coding Dojo’s coding Bootcamp earlier this year – so cool! Between coding language, English, and borrowed words in Korean, which was the hardest language to learn?
Charles: Coding was hard. You have to know the terms while learning the specific coding language, so that was a challenge. I’m still teaching myself the parts of coding that I find difficult. As for borrowed words in Korean, I didn’t know those existed at all until I started to talk to more Koreans in the US. Borrowed words frequently came up, and I would have to ask people around me to explain the words that I couldn’t understand; part of the challenge was how the same word is pronounced differently in Korean and in English. Shortened words in Korean were tough to learn as well.
LiNK: What’s your favorite thing about programming?
Charles: My favorite thing about programming is I have finally discovered what I truly want to do with my life. I used to want to be a doctor one day, a cop the next day, and maybe a week later, I would want to join the army. Coding first became my hobby and thanks to Coding Dojo, it became something I want to make a career out of. It’s a lot of fun. But aside from that, I’ve also met good friends and instructors at Coding Dojo. I think it’s safe to say coding made me pull a 180 in life. I’m set on computers for now.
LiNK: Can you tell us about a project you’ve been working on?
Charles: Sure. I’ve been working on a project using MEAN stack to make an auction platform for ideas. Users can present ideas, sell ideas, buy ideas… You could say that it’s similar to Ebay in a way, but I think at this stage it’s important to emulate what other people have made to explore and learn about various successful models rather than trying to create something entirely new and different. With the current version, users can upload an idea onto the platform, but there’s been glitches in the idea being transferred to the the auction page. So that’s something I’ve been struggling with, but I think I’m going to finish it pretty soon.
LiNK: How do you get into computer programming as a career in North Korea?
Charles: I’m not sure because I don’t have any friends who went to university, although I do have a relative who was able to go. Most students who go to university come from wealthy families or are people who have been able to make a good amount of money from market activities, and they might find that kind of job. But in North Korea a lot of occupations are passed down from your parents, for example if you’re a politician then your children will also likely become politicians.
LiNK: After coding, what do you like to do in your free time?
Charles: I’m usually at the gym working out. If it’s breezy and not too hot outside, I go to the park and listen to music. You can find me sitting on a bench with my headphones on.
LiNK: What kinds of things do you think about when you’re at a park listening to your music?
Charles: Usually I think about memories from North Korea. When I’m busy my mind is preoccupied with work, but when I have more time on my hands I often think back on my life in North Korea — both the good days and the hungry days.
LiNK: Can you share one of your favorite memories with us?
Charles: Sure. I had a lot of friends back in North Korea, and we were always outdoors in nature. I lived near Daedong River, so every Sunday, five to six friends of mine and I would have cookouts near the river. We would get rice, a pot, and some firewood to make porridge. Would I do that here? Probably not. I could try, but I think being with my friends was what made it memorable and special. Even when we were hungry, we were hungry together.
LiNK: That sounds really nice. Have you found any foods that you like to eat here?
Charles: Subway! I love sandwiches. My go-to Korean food is Kimchijiggae. I also like Vietnamese noodles — Pho.
LiNK: Cool. What are three things you want to accomplish by the end of this year?
Charles: First is completing my programming project, the Idea Auction project that I mentioned earlier. Second is getting accepted into the community college that I’m applying to. And third would be keeping in good health!
LiNK: Those are some solid goals. You drive Uber sometimes, right? When you’re talking with riders, do you share that you’re from North Korea?
Charles: Well, not a lot of people in the US are aware about North Korea. They say, “Where are you from?” So I would say, “I’m from North Korea,” and they go, “How is it there?” Haha. So I tell them that North Korea is the counterpart of South Korea. The funny thing is that they might not be familiar with North Korea, but they know what I’m talking about when I say the name Kim Jong Un. Then, they don’t believe me and say it’s impossible to escape. When I share my story, they’re very surprised. A lot of my customers stick around to listen to my story even after we’ve arrived at the destination. Even if it’s late at night, people don’t get out of my car until I finish my story.