From North Korea to Seoul National University | Noah’s Story
The house was too small. There was nowhere to hide, and so we had to leave.
I was only 8 years old when my parents divorced. My father was a violent alcoholic, and every day he would beat my mother, sister, and me. North Korea’s laws didn’t protect us from him, so my mother tried to protect us instead. My father stabbed her in the lungs for it.
We were suffocating, but there was no one to save us. The police, the law, and the regime didn’t care. So we left.
First, from our hometown. We moved to a remote city to escape our father’s shadow, but North Korea is a patriarchal society so families like ours are looked down upon. All people saw was a divorced woman and her fatherless children. They didn’t see my mother, who came back from the brink of death to protect her children at all costs. They didn’t see my older sister, who ran her own business and worked away from home to support our family.
All we had was each other, and everything we had, we shared. I remember the snacks we used to buy, the delicious things my sister would bring home and split three ways. We endured 8 years like this, surviving hardships and prejudice with little bits of sweetness.
With no social welfare or food rations to depend on, we had no hope of escaping extreme poverty and hunger. We tried our best, but there were days when I went to school starving. One time, while the other kids were getting ready to eat lunch, I snuck out to forage in a nearby mountain. I found some unripe apricots and ate them to satisfy my hunger. After school that day, I ran home and found some rice porridge leftover in the pot. Without thinking, I ate it all, only to find out later that my mother had sold her clothes in exchange for the rice.
That was worse than the hunger–the helplessness as I watched my mother sell her beloved belongings one by one.
We were still suffocating in a country that told us to be small and silent. To live so invisibly, perhaps they hoped we’d disappear altogether. And so we did. We left North Korea, in search of somewhere with breathing room. Somewhere we wouldn’t have to run from again.
That was eight years ago. My family lives in South Korea now. Today, my mother, who fought hard to protect her two children in a place with no freedom or human rights, works as a school teacher for other refugee children. My sister has since graduated from nursing school and works as a full-time ICU nurse. They’ve never stopped being the strongest, most loving people in my life.
I’m here because they protected me. And now, I can protect them too.
I used to be a terrified, 8 year-old boy, who could only rely on his mother. Now, I’m her proud son, studying politics at Seoul National University – the most prestigious college in South Korea.
As I learn and grow, I’m able to understand my past and leverage it for a better future. The politics and systems that people live under, the environments and experiences that people carry with them – all of these things can be different. But in the end, we are all people. We set the standards for our freedom. We can be the ones who bring change.
When I think about how my family used to live and how we live now, it’s actually easier to remember the bright, happy moments in North Korea, because they were so few and far between. Now, happiness is happenstance – it’s everyday and mundane. And I realize that’s what it must mean to be free. That I know this sweetness will stay, and I can too.
Noah was part of our 2022 class of Advocacy Fellows, a program that supports and develops the next generation of North Korean leaders, storytellers, and advocates. For three months, he traveled across the United States, sharing his story at universities, Fortune 500 companies, embassies, thank-tanks, and The White House. Ultimately, Fellows are working to bring a greater focus to the North Korean people and human rights issues rather than just politics.
A North Korean Defector’s Nine Year Journey to Freedom | Eunju’s Story
I didn’t know I was hungry until I was eight years old. Growing up, I had no concept of whether my hometown was wealthy or poor. Then when the great famine struck in the mid-90s, more people died in our city than anywhere else in the country.
That’s when I realized “Oh, this is the most difficult place to live in North Korea.”
I was born in the city of Eundok, North Hamgyong Province. Before that it was called Aoji, a destitute place infamous for its coal mines, where South Korean prisoners of war were sent to work.
In the middle of a long famine, people lose all sense of humanity. You couldn’t survive without dirtying your hands. My father was a kindhearted person, the type that was unable to hurt anyone. But towards the end, hunger drove him to steal from our own house.
On my first day of middle school, I couldn’t find my new backpack anywhere. It turns out that my dad had taken it to the Jangmadang, traded it for food, and eaten it by himself. In the end, he still died from starvation, and my mom, my sister, and I were left to fend for ourselves.
We heard that if we went to China, we could eat all the candy we wanted. With that one piece of information, my mom said she’d rather get shot crossing the Tumen river than starve in North Korea.
It was mid-February in 1999, during the bitter cold winter. The water was frozen solid and stretched over 100 meters across. My mom went first, followed by my sister, and I was in the very back. Maybe it was because I was anxious, but my shoes felt so slippery and I kept falling over as they went farther and farther ahead. We heard that soldiers would shoot anyone who tried to cross the river. But this was our only chance at survival.
My mind was racing, “What if I’m left behind and get caught?” My mom and sister probably feared the same thing.
We encountered a tributary that wasn’t frozen all the way, so my mom waited and had me go first because I was the lightest. A few steps in, the ice broke and I fell into the piercing cold water. None of us knew how to swim. At that moment, I really thought it was the end. But then my feet hit the ground. We had made it to the other side.
Not long after we had crossed into China, a Korean-speaking woman came up to us. She invited us to her house and gave us over a dozen boiled eggs, more food than we had seen in years. In North Korea, when my sister and I had a field trip for school, my mom would cut one boiled egg and give each of us half in our lunch box. To have this much at once was a true luxury. For the first time in a long while, we dared to have some hope.
But then my mom was sold off to a Chinese man. The fortunate thing was that even though my sister and I were 16 and 14 years old, we were so short that people asked if we were 7 or 8. They couldn’t sell us separately, so we were sent together with our mom.
We had been sold for 2000 yuan. When we wanted to leave, the man told us to pay him back. We worked in his house and on his farm but of course we never saw a penny. For three years, we lived in confinement, and my little brother was born.
On a quiet night before my brother was even a year old, Chinese police came to the house in the dark, knocked on the door, and arrested us.
When North Koreans get caught, sometimes they’ll roll up their money and eat it or hide it, but we didn’t have anything. We were taken back across the border with just our clothes. It’s well known that there’s a physical exam to look for hidden money. In a way, you shouldn’t even feel a basic sense of shame as a woman and as a human being. If you cry or plead for mercy, you’ll get beaten up. You cannot question them at all.
With so many people in North Korea dying of starvation, names were removed from the family register after three years without any news. We had already been declared dead. There were two minors and an adult, but our identities couldn’t be confirmed. At the time they couldn’t keep minors in prison without a ruling from the court, so we were entrusted to another person from our hometown. No one wanted extra mouths to feed, so he just let us go.
We went straight to the Tumen river and in 2002, we escaped again.
I had enough food when I was in China. Even dogs and pigs ate rice and corn. But we lived looking over our shoulders, in constant fear of the police.
When we heard about life in South Korea, where our safety and identities would be guaranteed, we decided to defect once more. We were introduced to a broker, gave them some cash upfront, and traveled through Mongolia and the Gobi Desert.
On September 1st, 2006, I arrived at Incheon airport with my mom. My sister joined us in South Korea in 2008. Nine years after first crossing the Tumen River, we were finally together in freedom.
When I was in China, my only wish was that my mom, sister, and I could sleep together, eat together, and come home from work together. I dreamed that someday we could go to the supermarket and get a whole cart full of things to share. After coming to South Korea, we achieved not only that, but everything we’ve ever wanted.
I co-authored a book about my journey, A Thousand Miles to Freedom, with a foreign journalist named Sebastien Falletti. He interviewed several North Koreans, and I agreed to share my story with him out of a sense of duty. I never thought he’d choose me.
Compared to North Korean defectors who live special lives, I don’t actually dream of being a human rights activist. There are times when I don’t want to share anymore and I feel like I have to repeat myself.
But then I think about my best friend in North Korea. Her name is Sunhwa and I don’t think she’s here yet. I imagine that she would want to live like me — to attend college, pave her own way, and explore the vast world we live in. But she is still stuck in the darkness. Until Sunhwa can live a life of freedom, I feel a sense of responsibility to continue to share.
When I think of North Korea, the dark image of my hometown floods my memories. But I would still like to go back just once and visit my dad’s grave. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that he was also a victim of the North Korean regime. I have hope that in this lifetime, North Korea will open up. I’ll return with my mom and my sister, and together we’ll visit my dad’s resting place and prepare a huge meal for him.
For North Koreans to share their stories with audiences around the world, retelling and reliving some of the most harrowing experiences, is an act of exceptional courage. They’re working towards the day when others no longer have to go through the same painful experiences.
You can help rescue more North Korean refugees and support them as they begin their new lives in freedom.