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Meet Charles - A North Korean Living in the United States

December 17, 2017
Charles1 (2)

Charles escaped from North Korea and made the dangerous journey through China without the help of a rescue network. We met Charles after he resettled in the United States and were able to connect him with Coding Dojo, a coding boot camp and Liberty in North Korea partner, that generously provides free programming education to North Koreans. We've become great friends with Charles and recently he was excited to share his story with you.

My name is Charles. I was born on October 1st, 1994. I grew up without the love of my parents because my father left us when I was five years old and my mother passed away six years later from starvation. For years, I had to figure out how to live alone. I begged for food from strangers on the street, battling starvation and freezing weather. One day my stepbrother came to find me and take me in. I lived with him for a while and when I was 14 years old he brought me to my father in China. Life was so much better in China and I remember thinking there would be no more starvation and no more begging for a place to sleep.

Yet nine months later, the Chinese police came to our house and arrested my family.

We begged the Chinese police to let us go but they wouldn’t listen. Instead, we were kept in a Chinese jail for two weeks. It was when I was sent back to North Korea after this two week period that I realized that no happiness existed any longer -- the happiness that I had felt had been only temporary. The North Korean government questioned me, abused me, and forced me to work as punishment even though I was only sixteen.

Each meal consisted of a single piece of corn.

After eight months, I was finally released. I was just skin and bones - I had almost starved to death.

Without any money, I knew I had to find work. I began working in a coal mine which allowed me to buy rice to eat. Work in the coal mine was very risky -- I saw people lose their arms and legs as they were smashed under the rocks. I was afraid and I couldn’t help thinking that I would soon lose an arm or a leg myself. After working in the mine for a year, I realized I couldn’t stay in North Korea any longer. I knew how long and hard escaping North Korea would be without money or food, and I understood that if I was caught I could be killed. But I wanted to take these risks instead of continue working at the coal mine. I knew I could leave - I just needed to be brave.

My journey began when I boarded a train to take me closer to the border of China and North Korea. I was riding illegally and though I managed to hide during most of the ride I was at one point caught by the train security without my birth certificate. They locked me in a room with plans to kick me off at the next stop. I felt every piece of hope inside of me break because I knew they would send me to jail. Then, as the train slowed, I realized that I might be able to escape through the window.

With my heart pounding in my throat I opened the window and jumped out.

Still, I had more to go. I walked for hours, illegally boarded a second train, and then, finally, I was at the border of China and North Korea.

I remember feeling excitement and happiness when I reached the border, but I also felt worry because I knew I had to cross the Tumen River. The land surrounding the river had constant security and if I was caught I would be shot. I hid in tall grass for six hours, waiting for darkness. Finally, I took a deep breath and stepped into the water. I was halfway across when the river picked up. I almost fell and in my fear I let out a scream before I could catch myself.

Suddenly, I felt a light on my head. A border guard screamed, “Come back here or we'll shoot you.”

I was terrified, and I thought I would never make it because the current kept pulling me under, but I just kept swimming. At last, I made it to the river’s shore.

My journey did not end when I got to China. I traveled by foot, van, bus, motorcycle, and boat. My shoes fell apart and my feet bruised and bled. I went for days without food and water and there were times when I wanted to give up. I cried many days until I couldn’t cry anymore because I was too dehydrated. When I made it to my father’s house, I expected him to welcome me, but he beat me and asked me why I had come to him. I saw that he did not want me. He asked me to leave and he sent me away with his first wife. Together, his wife and I escaped the eyes of many police officers and finally made it to Southeast Asia where I was safe. For months I stayed in a Korean embassy refugee camp and then an international refugee camp where I was finally helped to come to the United States.

In those months and years when I was struggling to survive, my dreams and hopes for a better life kept me going.

I told myself every day that I could make it better -- that one day, somehow, I would change my life, and I kept dreaming about this life. Eventually, I realized that I couldn’t just wait for this dream of a better life to come true -- I had to make it happen.

_____Charles has shared his incredible story at many events to help grow the movement of support for the North Korean people. We are honored to be able to work with him and we are grateful to you for making it all possible! Thank you.

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

April 18, 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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