My Name Is Loh Kiwan | Fictional Story, Real Lives

March 8, 2024

From a crumpled piece of paper, he copies his name onto the Application for Recognition of Refugee status. The letters flow together in neat, sloping script to spell–Loh Kiwan.

This seemingly mundane declaration of identity serves as the focal point of Netflix’s recently released movie, My Name is Loh Kiwan. Showcasing the titular character’s past and present struggles as a North Korean defector seeking asylum in Belgium, the film follows Kiwan’s journey through both hope and heartbreak while he fights for a new life in freedom. He shows unimaginable resilience in the face of tragedy, betrayal, and bureaucratic apathy, carving out a place where he can live as himself, for himself.

“Be proud of your name, and live a full and honorable life.” 
– Kiwan’s mother (Ok-hee), My Name is Loh Kiwan

Though based on a fictional novel, Loh Kiwan’s story captures the real life experiences of many North Korean refugees. Whether it be the harrowing circumstances of his escape, the subsequent challenges Kiwan faces while applying for asylum, or even the emotional turmoil of contending with his trauma, My Name is Loh Kiwan derives its drama from reality when depicting the struggles of North Korean defectors.

Uprooted by an act of defiance that saves his friend’s life, Kiwan and his mother escape across the border to China and live there under constant threat of arrest and forced repatriation. With no legal status as refugees and no legal options for leaving the country without government approval, North Korean defectors in China are exceptionally vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation. They live in the shadows, concealing their identities as best they can, despite cultural and language barriers. If captured and returned to their home country, they are subject to brutal torture, imprisonment, and execution. Rather than face such inhumanity, many see suicide as a final escape and carry poison or razor blades with them, much like Kiwan and his mother. 

“If I knew there would be a risk of being repatriated to North Korea…I thought that it would be better to die. So, I would like to tell North Korean defectors to take ‘poison’ in a survival kit.”
– Soyeon Lee, Beyond Utopia

It is ultimately his mother’s sacrifice that saves Kiwan from such a fate. Her death forces him into a position nearly every North Korean refugee recognizes–having to leave behind friends, family, and loved ones with aborted goodbyes for the sake of everyone’s safety and survival. Kiwan’s only material connection to his mother is a photo and a wallet full of blood. In reality, most leave with even less than that.

Not wanting to incriminate the people close to them if they are caught trying to escape, most North Korean refugees forgo any identifying documents or proof of their existence. They take only the bare essentials for survival, not knowing that their arrival in a new country is only the beginning of their journey, or even if they'll make it.  

“You’ll just have to hang in there,”
is what he is told by the government interpreter. For the next year, Kiwan is left to survive on his own.

But this is not the narrative Liberty in North Korea believes in. No North Korean person should have to endure the struggles or celebrate the successes of resettlement alone. Much like the assistance Kiwan later receives from an advocacy group that offers legal support and a community of other North Koreans, LiNK walks with our North Korean friends on their journey to freedom. And when they begin new lives, we support their success, amplify their voices, cultivate more leaders and changemakers working on this issue together.

In this, Kiwan’s story reflects yet another reality of the North Korean people. Not only do they encounter extraordinary hardships, but also, they face them with extraordinary strength. Throughout the film, Kiwan persists in his pursuit of an earnest, honest life. Despite setbacks and situations where he’s forced into hurt or hiding, he stays true to his mother’s wish for him to live well, and in doing so, inspires the people around him to do the same.

“When I first met you, I was about ready to give up. I kept going just to see your face again. You made me believe life was worth it. You’re the reason I’m still here, Kiwan.”
– Marie, My Name is Loh Kiwan

He finds hope, love, and freedom in others, but most importantly, in himself. When placed on trial to prove his identity before the court, Loh Kiwan proclaims the name his mother gave him. 

Owning one’s identity as a North Korean person is not always easy. From the start of their escape, they are forced to hide. Once they reach freedom, the stigma and prejudice people hold towards their homeland pressures many to erase their accent or change their name–sometimes as a form of self-protection, other times as a way to fit in.

What Kiwan’s story shows, however, is that there is hope at the end of hiding. There is beauty in the simple, everyday life he longs for–a life where he can work for himself and share meals with friends, have a home, have a future, and have the choice to stay or go.

“I realized what I really wanted in the end was not the right to live in this country, but the right to leave it whenever I wanted to.”
– Kiwan, My Name is Loh Kiwan

This is the life the North Korean people deserve, and every day, both within the country and without, they fight towards a better future. Their courage and indomitable spirit are not just figments of fiction. With your help, their freedom will become a reality.

Sign up below to learn how YOU can help support North Korean refugees today.

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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