From North Korea to Seoul National University | Noah’s Story

July 19, 2023

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.

We’re only able to sustain these life-changing programs because of your support.

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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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