Skip to main content

North Korean Refugee Recalls Harrowing Journey To New Life in California

Cheol “Charlie” Ryu gets teased by one of his housemates in Rancho Palos Verd...

Credit: Benjamin Gottlieb/KQED

Above: Cheol “Charlie” Ryu gets teased by one of his housemates in Rancho Palos Verdes. He lives there with a group of college-aged adults that work at LiNK (Liberty in North Korea), which helps refugees escape from North Korea.

Cheol W. Ryu said he will never forget the first time he thought about defecting from North Korea.

The country was consumed by famine, he said, and his mother had recently died of starvation. He was just 11 years old. His father left his family years prior to her death and so Charlie – as his friends call him – went to live with his aunt.

“It was really difficult because there was not enough food for their family,” Charlie said. “So I got kicked out every night. And then I would spend the night, winter cold, outside, so I was always alone and being homeless.”

He is now 23, and living in the southern California community of Rancho Palos Verdes. He has a head of thick black hair and a broad smile that fills his face. If you didn’t ask him, it would be tough to tell that he has stared death in the face on multiple occasions and refused to give in.

“There was one day that I was working on the side of the road, and then I saw when people vomit on the street,” Charlie recalls. “And it was so hot that the vomit was dried out. And there [were] pieces of rice. And I remember picking up the pieces of rice.”

Charlie escaped from North Korea twice. The first time, in 2008, he went to his father’s house in nearby China, where he said his father has Chinese citizenship.

But soon after, neighbors informed the local authorities, and Charlie was sent back to North Korea, where the regime put him into a labor camp.

“I was really hungry,” he said, recalling his time at the camp. “I couldn’t even think that I am going to escape this labor camp because I was really hungry and couldn’t run.”

At one point, Charlie said he was so weak that the guards at the camp left him to die. But he survived.

He would later find a job at a coal mine near his hometown. It is the first time, he said, in his life that he could expect three meals a day. Despite that level of relative comfort, Charlie said he could see how his life would end up if he stayed at the mine.

“I saw a lot of people dying…smashed into the rocks, losing their arms, legs, accidents, everything,” he said. “And I couldn’t help thinking, ‘That is going to be me one day.’ That’s what [made] me escape again.”

He escaped from the coal mine and made his way to the Yalu River, which runs along the Chinese‐North Korean border.

“There are guards that are posted [there], looking for people trying to defect,” said Hannah Song, the director of Liberty in North Korea, which helps North Korean refugees escape. “They have every opportunity to shoot on sight if they see someone trying to defect across the river there.”

While he was crossing the river, Charlie said he felt a bright light shine over his head.

“I heard screaming like, ‘Hey, you! Come back here. I will shoot you,’” he recalls. “And I was terrified, but at the same time I was really like, ‘I want to keep going. It doesn’t matter, I am going to keep going. If you shoot me, whatever.’”

That guard never fired his weapon.

Charlie made it across the Yalu and into neighboring China where he would soon begin the long journey from northern China to Thailand. In Thailand he was granted refugee status, which eventually allowed him to come to the U.S.

Most North Korean defectors resettle in South Korea – an estimated 30,000 – because the language is very similar and, at least culturally, it’s an easier transition. But because of some family issues involving his father and other relatives, the government in Seoul would not accept Charlie.

That’s when he said another refugee suggested he should try his luck with the United States, where the number of refugees trying to enter is not nearly as high.

Song said there are between 200 and 250 North Korean refugees that have resettled in the U.S. legally and another 1,000 or so that have come to the country illegally, most often by overstaying their visas. When Charlie came to the U.S. in 2012 at the age of 17, he was settled in the Bay Area, where the local chapter of Catholic Charities set him up with a foster family.

As remarkable as Charlie’s story is, he said there are thousands more just like him still suffering in his home country.

“We haven’t accepted any North Korean refugees since January,” said David Kang, Director of Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California. “So the numbers are very small and, now, they are vanishingly small, that come to the United States.”

The Trump administration put a hold on the nation’s refugee program when it first came to power, and 11 nations are now on a list of those being reviewed even further. That list includes North Korea.

According to the new executive order, refugee admissions from those nations will only be allowed on a case‐by‐case basis, and only if that person’s entry is in the U.S. national interest.

It is a tough pill to swallow for Charlie, when he thinks about all of his friends that he left behind in North Korea.

“I want to see all those North Korean people,” he said. “My friends that are in North Korea, starving to death, going to military and abused, beat to death, and froze to death all those friends that I had and still going through those hardships in North Korea. I want them to be free.”

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.