A Reason to Live: An Interview with Hae Sun

July 14, 2015

Hae Sun was rescued while hiding in China in 2013. Now safely resettled in South Korea, she attends a two-year college as a business/Chinese major and she just finished her first semester. Choosing to go to college was not an easy decision for her. She was adjusting to the many differences in South Korean society and dealing with loneliness, low self-esteem, and anxiety issues. But, ultimately her drive to pursue her dreams was stronger than the challenges she faced. Now, she’s excited to achieve the goals she has set out for herself.

“When I got my acceptance letter to a two-year college in South Korea, I thought of my mom who is still in North Korea. I wished she could’ve heard the good news and congratulated me. I haven’t heard from her since I left North Korea a few years ago. I don’t even know whether she is still alive. I know she would be very proud of me for attending college.” - Hae Sun

Our resettlement coordinator Jihyun recently met up with Hae Sun to see how she has been doing since starting college. Read their conversation below:


Jihyun: “How was your first semester?”

Hae Sun: It was not easy at all. In the beginning, I struggled so much. There were so many things my South Korean classmates easily understood that I didn’t because of the different education systems between North Korea and South Korea. I also didn’t study for more than 10 years because I didn’t get a proper middle school/high school education in North Korea and spent a long time hiding in China.

I didn’t do well for my midterms, but did better for my finals. Throughout the semester there were many moments when I really wanted to give up and drop out of school because studying was so hard and things were difficult for me, but I didn’t give up.


Jihyun: “Other than studying what else was difficult during your first semester?”

Hae Sun: Well, making friends in college was not easy. You know, I am at least 10 years older than most other freshmen. I am still afraid that they might not feel comfortable being around me because I am a lot older and culturally different from them. Some students have been so nice to me and I shouldn’t think that way, but I still get self-conscious about my age and background, which I know hinders me from getting close to them. Next semester I will try to be around other students more without worrying about my age and background.


Jihyun: What was the best part of your first semester?

Hae Sun: I was able to clearly understand a lot of Chinese grammatical stuff, which I had struggled with for a while. I was hiding in China for a long time so I learned conversational Chinese through talking with Chinese people, but I never learned it in school, so there were still a lot of grammatical rules I didn’t understand. Since I started studying Chinese as my major, I have learned a lot of those rules. I am so so happy about it and thankful for my education.


Jihyun: “What was one of new things you started doing after coming to South Korea?”

Hae Sun: Volunteer work to help people in need. In North Korea, I never thought of helping other people because I had so many difficulties then. I have been part of a group of volunteers for the past year that gives food to homeless people in train stations in Seoul. The group consists of young resettled North Korean refugees like me and South Korean college students.

Even after I resettled to South Korea, I didn’t think of helping others because I didn’t have a lot and thought I had to resettle successfully first. But while volunteering through the group, I have realized that I don’t need to have a lot of money or time to help other people.

Sharing what I have with others and helping them makes me happy now. In North Korea and China when I was always in need, I thought only receiving could make me happy, but now I know giving also makes me happy. That is why I do the outreach volunteer work for the homeless.


Jihyun: What were some of the difficulties you had when you first came to South Korea?

Hae Sun: Before I came to South Korea, I thought I would be fine communicating with people here because we speak the same language, but I was not aware of a lot of the differences between the South Korean language and the North Korean language because the two countries have been separated for almost 70 years.

At first I struggled a lot. There were many times when I either didn’t understand South Koreans or they didn’t understand me due to our different accents and words. Although there are still words and expressions I don’t completely understand, I am a lot more used to it than when I first came here. I have learned a lot of new words and expressions while working different jobs with South Koreans and through attending college here.

Actually at the beginning of this semester, I didn’t understand a lot of words that other students would use because I am even more unfamiliar with words young people use here. Still, I get confused about some South Korean expressions and words and sometimes I still don’t understand what my professors say. I used to get stressed out about it so much, but now I try to give myself more grace about my language issues. I mean I will keep learning new things and trying to get used to them for the rest of my life here. I will just face them instead of avoiding or getting stressed about them. That is why I am in college so that I can learn, right?

Another difficulty was loneliness…I still feel lonely from time to time. I really miss my family. I actually had depression when I first came to South Korea because of loneliness. Now I don’t have depression anymore because of new friends I have made since I came to South Korea. My church community has especially made me feel loved and encouraged and has been helping me overcome loneliness and depression.


Jihyun: What is freedom to you?

Hae Sun: Freedom enables me to do what I want and visit the places and countries where I want to go as long as I have the willpower and make the effort. None of this was possible back in North Korea.


Jihyun: What do you want to say to people around the world who support you and other North Koreans?

Hae Sun: I really thank them from the bottom of my heart. They have never met me and they don’t know me, but they have supported me so much. Thanks to their support I am now enjoying my freedom and pursuing my college education. What is more moving to me is they have given me all the support without asking anything in return. I am so touched by their unconditional support. I cannot thank the supporters enough.


Jihyun: How do you want people in the world to see North Korea and the North Korean people?

Hae Sun: I want the world to distinguish between its people and its leaders. I know that the regime is bad and has done a lot of evil things, but the ordinary people are innocent.


Jihyun: What is the most important value in life?

Hae Sun: Having goals to achieve. I didn’t have a lot of goals until I came to South Korea. After escaping in my early 20s, I didn’t have any goals other than just surviving and not getting repatriated back to North Korea...I didn’t even want to live a long life. I just wanted to live until I turned 30. But now, I want to live for a long time because I have a lot of goals to achieve.

I would feel so sad if I only lived until I turned 30 now. That is not enough time to do all the things I want to do.


Jihyun: What are your future goals?

Hae Sun: I always wanted to go to college in North Korea and China, but it was not possible due to my social status and other obstacles in those countries. I am living that dream by attending college with a major I really enjoy studying. Now my goal for the future is to successfully finish college and get a job I am passionate about. I don’t know what kind of job I want yet, but I know I will find one if I keep doing my best in college.

You can help other North Korean refugees escape China and resettle successfully by donating to our work. Donate now.

A North Korean Defector’s Nine Year Journey to Freedom | Eunju’s Story

September 19, 2023

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.

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