Sae Won was one of those people who exists in every society: kind of different from the status quo and a little bit more adventurous and broad-thinking than the people around her. She came from a small mountain village right on the North Korean-Chinese border where everyone dutifully held their government-assigned jobs. But because she hated the idea of working at a desk, she took up a variety of unusual jobs—smuggling goods, brokering people across the border, and even a brief stint as a drug dealer.
She first escaped to China by herself at the young age of 20 with the initial purpose of earning some money for her family, but also to see something beyond her current world. She didn’t know it until she made it to China, but the person she had asked to help her was a trafficker, and she was sold as soon as she crossed.
After escaping from her captor, Sae Won missed her family so much she went back into North Korea, only to be caught and sent to prison where she was tortured and beaten. “I have never been beaten like that in my life,” she said. “There, you have no name. There, you are just a number.” She found out that the only way she could leave the prison was if she needed surgery, so she feigned appendicitis in order to be released.
The inhumane treatment that Sae Won endured couldn’t dampen her spirit. “I think my personality changed after I went to China for the first time; my eyes had been opened. After seeing people live so much better than any North Koreans that I knew, I couldn’t stand seeing the way we lived in poverty after I went back. I had also begun to think more broadly and be more open-minded.” Her desire to see the world continued to grow and she escaped a second time. Living in China for several years was incredibly liberating for her, but the lack of citizenship and a partner that wasn’t faithful to her forced her to think about the future.
On a whim, she went to a fortuneteller who told her, “If you don’t leave this country this year, you will die.” She was working as a window washer at that time and one day, while working on the 6th floor, she spotted a car driving by with a passenger that looked startlingly like a person she knew back in her hometown in North Korea. In her sudden surprise, she reached out to call out to them without thinking and fell. The hospital staff told her that she was the only person they knew that had survived a fall from that height. She regained consciousness in two hours and was walking within two months after breaking her left arm and ankle. She had to leave the hospital before she was fully recuperated because she was afraid she would get caught so she went home and did her own physical therapy, using a rolling chair to get around the apartment and using small weighty objects to build strength back up in her broken arm.
The fortuneteller’s warning haunting her mind, so she reconnected with a good friend who had already resettled in South Korea and was connected with LiNK’s network. Now that she had the chance to truly dream big, Sae Won is going to resettle in the United States, a place she had always been incredibly curious about. She is actually not too worried about the resettlement process, saying, “I’d already had to adjust to totally new settings when I first came to China.” Though she is a bit intimidated by the huge obstacle of learning English, she is set on her decision and is using books to study while she awaits resettlement.
When she resettles in the U.S., Sae Won thinks she wants to be a social worker or work for a non-profit to bring awareness to people inside North Korea about the outside world that awaits them, though nothing specific yet. “I can’t decide right now. I don’t have big goals yet but I want to adjust to my new life as quickly as possible so that I can bring my family to happiness and also work to break the mindset of the North Korean people.”
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