Charles Ryu, now living in the United States, spent nine months in a labour camp when he was a teenager after his first failed attempt to flee the pariah state, inspired by Hollywood action movie stars.
Ryu became a street child in North Korea twelve years ago, at the age of 11, when progressing impoverishment of the country’s civilian population pushed Ryu’s aunt to kick the boy out of the house. His mother died of starvation during a famine, and his father, a Chinese national, moved back to China when he was five, leaving the family without support.
Having no alternative solutions, Ryu turned to illegal trading in order to survive. Black market had been flourishing in the North since the late 1990s, selling items such as flooring, motorcycles and illegal Chinese mobile phones.
At some point Ryu started copying foreign movies on to memory sticks and selling them to his friends. Those movies opened his and some of his friends’ eyes to how different the outside world really was and inspired Ryu to start building escape plans.
“They got me curious about freedom and life outside North Korea… We’d been brainwashed from a young age. Everything I was taught was a lie… the worst thing was being told North Korean people were richer than South Koreans. That’s what I learned in school,” he said, as cited by South China Morning Post.
“The younger generation has more access to foreign media through USB sticks and DVD players…Those my age know everything going on. If they don’t watch, they have nothing to talk about and they’re not in the cool crowd,” Ryu explained.
According to Ryu, reliance on illegal trading and capitalism rather than the government and the influence of foreign culture have made the younger generation think differently.
Sokeel Park from the international NGO Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), which has helped more than 700 North Koreans defect to South Korea in the past few years, said that North Korean refugees, especially millennials, were quietly contributing to seismic social changes within North Korea through word-of-mouth information exchange about the outside world that the government could not control.
Most popular among Ryu’s clients were movies and television shows from South Korea, the United States, Russia, China and Indonesia. And some of the action films he watched, including those with Tom Cruise and Will Smith, gave him strength when he decided he had to escape from the Kim Jong-un’s regime. Unfortunately, Ryu’s first attempt was not successful.
In 2008, when Ryu was only 14, his father sent his Chinese half-brother to find him and help him escape. But after nine months living with his father, Chinese police detained Ryu and deported him to North Korea. The boy ended up in a labour camp where he worked in a coal mine, starving and suffering from abuse by the guards.
“I could count my rib cage and feel myself getting weaker,” Ryu said. “We worked 12 hours straight every day. I was so hungry I tried to pick the [undigested] corn from my poo.”
After witnessing many of his friends being killed or losing limbs, Ryu gathered his courage to try to escape again. Still only 16, he sneaked onto a train to get to a town on the Chinese border and then swam across the Yalu River, which separates the two countries. He then found his father’s home and on his advise hired people smugglers to help him get to Thailand where he could go to the South Korean embassy to defect to Seoul.
“I was so scared most of the time,” he said. “If I got caught, I would have been publicly executed for escaping North Korea to go to South Korea.”
However, the South Korean government did not accept Ryu as a North Korean because of his Chinese father, SCMP reports. He ended up in an international refugee detention center in Southeast Asia before the United Nations helped him get to the US, where he arrived on September 28, 2012, aged 17.
In America Ryu lived with a Chinese foster family for several years and finished high school in 2015. Now 23, he has recently learned coding and wants to find a job as a software engineer.
“One day I want to make an awesome app to reach all of the North Korean people,” Ryu said. “It’s a miracle I got out. Despite all the troubles and sadness I went through, now that I’m here, I want to return and do something good about it.”