Years before Tae Woo’s escape, his father, too, once crossed the North Korean border. In search of food for Tae Woo and his three sisters, his father entered China in hopes of returning home with food, however Tae Woo’s father did not return. He was arrested for illegally leaving the country and was held in a labor camp for the next three years. Meanwhile, Tae Woo and his family continued to starve.
When his father was eventually released, he didn’t speak about his time in the camp, but Tae Woo had heard about the horrible things done to captured defectors and he carried with him the fear of him or his family being held in the camps. Despite this, his wish for a better life for his family overwhelmed him and gave him the courage to escape.
Although he barely knew how to swim, Tae Woo waded across the river into China. He found work in a restaurant and began the difficult process of starting a new life in hiding. One day, his greatest fear was realized when police burst into the restaurant and demanded to see his identification. He was arrested and repatriated to North Korea where, like his father, he was detained in a labor camp. Withstanding beatings, malnourishment, and near constant forced labor, for eight months he struggled to survive. Many of those detained with him perished.
Tae Woo may have also perished if not for a little good fortune and his extraordinary desire to be free. After a failed attempt to escape from the labor camp, he found himself held in a police station where security was light and the chances of a successful escape were as good as anywhere a captured defector might be held. He seized the opportunity and, weak with exhaustion from his time in the camp, once again headed for the border. From that time on, Tae Woo would never again be detained. Tae Woo now looks forward to studying the culinary arts and learning how to box in South Korea.