A North Korean Refugee’s Legacy of Freedom | Holly & Mia’s Story

April 17, 2024

As a little girl in North Korea, I dreamt of becoming a musician. When I was 6 years old, I saw my school teacher playing the organ. After class one day, I went up and placed my hands on the keys, trying to mimic what she played. When the teacher got back, she asked who touched the organ. All the kids looked at me and I thought I’d get in trouble, but instead of punishing me, she started teaching me how to read music. Eventually, my teacher came to my home and urged my parents to send me to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, to pursue music with some of the country’s best musicians.

But my parents knew I could not achieve my dream. My grandfather had been a landowner before the North Korean regime took power. When the Korean War broke out, he had fled to the South, never to be heard from again. The regime didn’t forget my family’s past - to them, we were traitors. Before I was even born, my future had been decided.

I couldn’t attend a university or get a good job. While others studied, I would have to dig for coal and sell it. 

One night, I was gathering firewood on a mountain near the South Korean border with another girl. In the distance, I saw a town that was dazzlingly bright in the dark evening. Electricity is a luxury in North Korea, and I soon realized I was looking across the border. I had secretly watched South Korean movies for years. I had seen the delicious food they ate and the amazing places they traveled. I stared at the lights and dreamed of what my life could be.

The dream was too powerful to ignore. I worked every day from sunrise to sunset to save money for my escape.

I gathered rare mushrooms on the slopes of North Korea’s tallest mountain, through the bitter cold. After sixty trips, I had enough money to hire a broker to help me escape into China.

But I trusted the wrong broker.

The broker betrayed us and sold us out. Soldiers were waiting for us at the meeting point and we were dragged from the river to an interrogation cell. The secret police want you to confess that you were trying to defect to South Korea. They beat you with a stick and slam your head against a wall until you just want the pain to stop. But if you confess, you’re sent to a political prison camp to die like an animal.

So I refused to say anything. They kept beating me and screaming at me, but I closed my eyes and held on to my dream of freedom. It was two weeks before they finally sent me to a detention center.

A woman in my cell told me about another broker who could help me escape. But there was a catch - I would have to be sold to a man in China.

I chose the unimaginable. I was sold for less than $3,000.

It is hard for me to talk about this time in my life. The man who bought me kept me in a small bedroom in his house. In one month, I was pregnant. When he found out, he told me to get an abortion. I refused. He tried to drug me and take me to get an abortion while I was unconscious.

One night I felt sick and thought it was food poisoning, but I was in labor and rushed to the hospital. After twenty hours, the doctor had to perform an emergency c-section. The man who bought me complained about the extra expense.

But when I woke up, there was my beautiful baby. I put her on my chest and knew she was my everything. My new dream was to give my daughter Mia a chance to have a better life than me.

I knew we couldn’t stay in China. The man who bought me didn’t want a child, and every day we stayed was another day we could get caught. But I couldn’t take a newborn baby on the dangerous journey. I waited until Mia was one year old, making secret plans with someone who could help us escape - now I know they were part of LiNK’s rescue network.

The day of our escape finally came, and we went to a safe house. I had Mia on my back and a bag full of diapers, clothes, and a small bracelet that was a gift for her. It was everything we had. We met up with other North Koreans, and they were not happy that Mia and I were joining them. I could not blame them. There were stories about groups that were caught because of a crying baby.

Taking care of a one year old is hard enough. Doing so while avoiding the Chinese police was one of the hardest things I have ever done.

I didn’t want Mia to cry so I never put her down, even when my back and arms ached from rocking her. We never stopped for more than a few hours so I had to breastfeed her along the way. Whenever we did have a break, I’d change her diapers, clean her, and make sure she ate enough. By the time I was done, we had to move again. I didn’t have time to eat so I went days with barely any food.

But every mile we traveled brought us closer to our new life. One hot morning, we climbed into a boat and crossed a river. With Mia in my arms, we were met by LiNK’s field team who welcomed us into freedom.

There are two days I will never forget. The day Mia was born and the day I arrived in the United States. I cried so much walking out of the airport. I had no idea what our new life would look like, but we were together and we were finally free.

Now when Mia falls asleep in my arms, all I feel is happiness. My story used to only be about my dreams, but now, I am watching my daughter grow into a fearless and curious person. If I never decided to escape and if I didn’t have LiNK’s help, Mia’s life would be so different. Instead of growing hungry, she has a full stomach. Instead of learning North Korean propaganda, she’s learning about science and animals and the world. Instead of fearing we could be sent to a political prison camp, I just worry she’s growing up too soon.

I believe that one day, every North Korean will be free. And every child will be able to write their own story, like my Mia.

Thanks to Holly’s bravery and the help of LiNK supporters around the world, Mia will never know a life without freedom. Holly will be leaving behind a legacy of freedom for her daughter and for generations to come.

You can help rescue more North Korean refugees and support them as they begin their new lives.

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A North Korean Father Risks Everything for Family | Doohyun’s Story

April 24, 2024

I lived in North Korea for over 20 years, and for much of that time, I believed my life was normal. I grew up in a big city by the river. When the wind blew, I could smell the water on the breeze, and on holidays, I played along the banks with my friends.

The river ran along the border between North Korea and China. I could see across the water into a different world–one where cars lined the streets, and buildings stretched high into the sky.

But I didn’t realize that life should be different, until the day they took my father away.

My father was a great businessman. He provided for our family despite being forcibly discharged from the military when his Minister of Defense was executed by Kim Il Sung. Labeled as a “traitor,” he was banned from decent jobs and opportunities. 

Still, my father was a clever man and found success within the private market system that many North Koreans rely on to survive. Until one day, the police came to investigate him.

Without reason or warning, my father was arrested and imprisoned. They tortured him for a year. When he was released, my father weighed only 66 pounds.

Even after surviving the unimaginable, he was defiant. He wrote 20 pages of complaints to the Central Party about the human rights abuses he endured. My family was terrified of the consequences, but we couldn’t stop him. He fought for his voice to be heard.

On a warm Spring day, a Mercedes-Benz, license plate number 216, arrived at our home. February 16th was Kim Jong Il’s birthday, and cars with this number were only given to his closest aides. My father spoke with the man for hours about his letter. The man apologized and promised something like this wouldn’t happen again. This gave us a bit of hope for the future – for the possibility of change.

But the man left for Pyongyang. And then the police returned. I never saw my father again.

For two years, my family and I lived in unknowing agony, receiving no news on my father. Eventually, we heard from my father’s friend, who was a police officer, that he had passed away in prison. 

At the very least, we wanted to send him off properly, so we asked that same friend how we could get my father’s body. Three days later, he returned. He told us they would not return my father’s body. My father had been sentenced to eight years in prison. He’d passed away after two. He still had six more years to serve – as a dead body. As a corpse.

For the first time I wondered whether this was the way normal people lived.

In 2009 I decided to escape from North Korea. Life had become near impossible for me after my father’s death, and I continued to face discrimination due to our family’s status in society.

By then, I had been married to my wife, Jiyeon, for two years. Most of our relationship before marriage was through the phone, because we lived far apart, and traveling in North Korea is difficult. So we called each other every night and talked for hours. 

Now, I didn’t know if I was going somewhere she would never be able to reach. I told her it was a business trip. Two weeks. I’ll just be gone for two weeks

She still cried at the train station, thinking about those two weeks. I couldn’t cry with her because then she would know the truth. So I boarded the train without a word, and watched it take me away from her.

From the moment I escaped North Korea, it felt like I was being chased by a grim reaper. There were multiple close-calls where I felt death breathing down my neck.

I was once hiding in a corn field near the Chinese border. Lying on my stomach, I watched soldiers patrol the area when suddenly, one of them walked towards me. It was too late to run or hide. 

I had brought poison with me in case something like this happened - I knew it would be better to kill myself rather than be captured. But as I prepared to take the poison, I thought of my wife. I thought about how she would never know what happened to me.

In that moment of sheer terror, I heard the sound of water. The soldier stood right beside me but he hadn’t seen me. He had only walked over to relieve himself. For the next few minutes, I couldn’t move. The soldier had left, but my body held onto the terror of that moment. I remained hunched and hurried for the rest of the journey.

Eventually, I made it safely to South Korea. I started working as soon as possible – 12 hour days to pay back the broker fee, and save up money for my wife’s escape. My schedule was just working and sleeping, working and sleeping. It was hard, but for the first time in a long time, I had hope.

I was able to find a broker who put me in contact with my wife. It had been ten months since I’d defected at that point – ten months of her not knowing whether I was dead or alive. The call couldn’t be made in the city because the signal could be intercepted, so my wife and the broker hiked to the top of a mountain.

When we heard each other’s voices again, all we could do was cry. But we didn’t have much time, and so I asked her, you’re coming, right

She said she was.

On December 27th, 2011, Jiyeon crossed the river to escape North Korea on the same route that I took.

As soon as my wife arrived in South Korea, I went to meet her. I was so excited. I couldn’t stop crying. When my wife came into the room, she was crying too – but do you know what’s the first thing she did when she saw me?

She punched me – crying, calling me a liar. And I deserved it.

We live in Utah now with our two beautiful sons. We go fishing, camping, and enjoy the outdoors together. Every time I see them, I realize I’m living in a different world, one where we can finally dream and decide our own future.

This is the life I’ve made for my children. This is the life my father envisioned for me and for all North Koreans when he made his act of defiance. My father died fighting for his voice to be heard – and now, finally, he’ll be heard by the world.

Doohyun risked everything to create a future where his family could live together in freedom. Their story isn’t unique - there are many more North Koreans waiting and hoping for the day when they can reunite with loved ones. Help make freedom part of every North Korean’s story.

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Since resettling in the United States, Doohyun has completed his undergraduate studies and now works for a North Korean human rights organization. He considers helping the North Korean people to be his life’s mission, continuing his father’s legacy.

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