By 17, He'd Escaped North Korea Twice. Now He's Helping Others Do The Same.

"Hard manual labor made me realize what I was capable of, that I am strong and not going to die, I will survive no matter what.”

By the time he was 17, Charles Ryu had escaped North Korea not once but twice. Now, he's working with a California-based organization to help other North Korean refugees make their own journeys to freedom through a series of clandestine, underground networks.  

The organization, called Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), was started by a group of Korean-American students at Yale in 2006. Since then, it has evolved into a wide-reaching program that is both aiding North Koreans who want to escape the oppressive regime and changing the narrative about what life for North Koreans is really like. 

"The media tends to focus on the regime, Kim Jong-un and nuclear weapons," Ian McKay, the marketing and communications coordinator for LiNK, told A Plus. "And those are serious issues that deserve to be highlighted…But that's what the regime wants. They know how to respond to that. What gets tricky for the regime is when the focus is on the human rights abuses of the North Korean people."

Ryu's story is a good illustration of those abuses. 

Now an advocacy intern with LiNK, Ryu was born in North Korea. According to Ryu, his father, left him when he was a young child, his mother died of starvation when he was 11, and as a teenager, he lived with an aunt and uncle who loathed him because he ate their limited food. That's when he finally cracked and decided he wanted to escape the country.

"The true motivation for trying to escape is usually hunger," Ryu told A Plus. 

Charles Ryu poses for a picture wearing a LiNK t-shirt.
Charles Ryu poses for a picture wearing a LiNK t-shirt. Liberty In North Korea

After Ryu wrote to his father, then living in China, Ryu's stepbrother, who is Chinese, used a coveted passport to enter North Korea alone and leave with Ryu in tow. The trio reunited in China, where Ryu's new surroundings were intoxicating. He no longer had to beg for food or sleep outside, and he felt safe in his new home knowing that his father was Chinese. 

He was 14 years old and experiencing life outside of North Korea for the first time. But he didn't know that the hardest part was yet to come. He never imagined he'd be sent back to North Korea.

Ryu told A Plus that a Chinese citizen reported him to the government, though he never figured out whether he was friends with the person who turned him in. He heard later that the reward for reporting him was 800 yuan — about $126. 

In a "friendship treaty" that was signed between North Korea and China in 1961, Chinese government officials and North Korea's government agreed to cooperate with each other on a number of social, economic and military issues. Today, the treaty is often cited as motivation for the Chinese government to send any North Koreans they find in China back home. The government in China refuses to recognize North Korean refugees as anything but illegal immigrants. The U.N., in contrast, classifies them as asylum seekers or political refugees. 

The agreement protects China from a massive influx of immigrants, and repatriates many refugees to North Korea, where they are summarily punished.

Ryu was sent to a labor camp, a dreaded outcome for North Korean refugees who manage to escape the regime. Some experts estimate that there are as many as 120,000 North Koreans in similar political labor camps. Ryu says he was fed 50 kernels of corn three times a day while doing 12 hours of hard labor. He nearly died of starvation, he said. Once again, he felt the desperate desire to leave, but now he had an added motivation: he knew what the outside world was like. 

A group of North Korean refugees in a van on their way to freedom. Many refugees have their identities kept secret to protect their families who are still in North Korea.
A group of North Korean refugees in a van on their way to freedom. Many refugees have their identities kept secret to protect their families who are still in North Korea. Liberty In North Korea

"For me, because I already had experience in China and had already tasted it, I could not really give up on that," Ryu said.

Pushed to the edge of death, Ryu was released from the labor camp with his punishment complete. He said it took half a year to recover, and by then his family had completely abandoned him. But he was grateful to get out of the camp.

"Some people are actually born in there and never get out," he said. "I couldn't stand the lies that [the] North Korea government told me when I was repatriated back to North Korea. In the labor camp, hard manual labor made me realize what I was capable of, that I am strong and not going to die, I will survive no matter what."

In May of 2011, he decided he would try to escape again. Ryu had been working in coal mines, a job he came to appreciate because he was fed well and paid in rice. But he couldn't shake his memories of the outside world, and when a train broke down outside the mine where he worked, he didn't hesitate to board it. Ryu tried to fit in with other passengers and became elated when he found out that it was headed to a border town near China. In the middle of the ride, though, he was asked for his tickets and paperwork and could not produce them. Train security locked him in a holding area but, again, Ryu managed to escape. 

This time he went through a window, and managed to reach the border of China by hopping trains, swimming across rivers and hiking barefoot — sometimes days at a time — until he collapsed on a highway in Chinese territory. A Chinese man took him in and introduced him to a South Korean pastor who said he'd try to help him get to South Korea safely.

The route many North Koreans take to be resettled in South Korea.
The route many North Koreans take to be resettled in South Korea. Liberty In North Korea

Because Ryu's father was Chinese, South Korea would not resettle him as a North Korean refugee. Instead, he was granted political asylum in the United States, where he lives today. Ryu's second escape was a daring journey he took mostly on his own, but now he's helping others inside North Korea find their way out. 

McKay says LiNK has built a network of partners on the ground, none of whom are associated with any government entities. They run special rescue routes through China to South Korea, and have established groups of people they can trust to help them move refugees discreetly through North Korea, China and Southeast Asia to get to asylum in countries like South Korea or the United States. LiNK claims to have a 95 percent escape success rate, which McKay described as "above the industry standard" of 70 percent for organizations that do similar work.

LiNK has rescued 756 refugees since it began helping North Koreans escape, and it polls each of them on their reasons for trying to leave the country. Often times, McKay said, the outside influence refugees came in contact with could be as basic as South Korean or American television dramas. In those shows, they would see regular people driving nice cars or eating white rice, and wonder why they weren't afforded the same luxuries. 

"One of the biggest poll factors for North Koreans leaving the country is they have been exposed to the outside world," McKay said. "For last 10 years, the regime has said it wanted to control the info. They did a pretty good job at for a long time. But now there is so much dissemination of outside info coming into the country… and it's creating awareness of the outside world."

A collage of North Koreans that LiNK has helped escape. 
A collage of North Koreans that LiNK has helped escape.  Liberty In North Korea

In the last year, though, those rescues have been happening less often. McKay says just 1,200 North Korean refugees safely resettled in South Korea in 2017, a significant drop from years prior. Human Rights Watch has also documented an increase in the number of North Korean refugees that China is detaining and sending back home. Chinese officials have cracked down on routes used by LiNK and similar organizations to help North Koreans escape, and the North Korean regime has increased security on border areas like the one Ryu crossed to safety. In part, the regime is responding to the growing amount of outside information that is spreading throughout the country and leading people to try and make an escape.

"When they [refugees] leave or when their parents leave, then North Korean refugees are calling their friends and family still inside the country and telling them, 'I made it out, I'm safe, and guess what? The world outside North Korea is so much better,'" McKay said. "Every time we help the North Korean refugees and resettle them, they are sending money and information back into the country, which is just accelerating more change and putting pressure on the regime to adapt."

Now McKay, Ryu and the LiNK team are focused on changing the narrative about North Korea as they help refugees escape. For a long time, LiNK tried to change policy in Washington D.C. — but they realized their effort would be better spent educating Americans about North Korea and helping liberate the North Korean people directly. Both Ryu and McKay said the best thing Americans can do to help is to donate to organizations like LiNK. A group of "Vision Donors" supports LiNK's operations budget, but 100 percent of any outside donations goes directly to the refugee rescue program, its "Changing the Narrative" work, and a refugee empowerment program for North Koreans who have been resettled. 

McKay compared what's happening in North Korea to the crisis in Syria, pointing out that Americans often recognize the Syrian people as being separate from the Syrian government, but struggle to show the same empathy for North Korean citizens living under the North Korean regime. Ryu agreed.

"I want people to know that North Korean people are normal," Ryu said. "They have dreams and they want better life as we all do."

With tensions high between North Korea and the U.S., despite the historic potential of an in-person meeting between the two countries' leaders, his emphasis on the humanity of his former countrymen may be more important now than ever.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story noted Charles Ryu was imprisoned in a "political labor camp." He was held in a labor camp.

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