Fleeing North Korea

Two young refugees from North Korea tell their stories

Jeongho Kim, second from left, discusses his experiences growing up in North Korea. Photo by Anamika Saha.
Jeongho Kim, second from left, discusses his experiences growing up in North Korea. Photo by Anamika Saha.

North Korean refugee Jeongho Kim did not start elementary school until he was 12; now, at the age of 21, he has a chance to go to college.

Kim and fellow North Korean refugee Cheoljun Yang, 19, told a Duke audience Friday about their lives in North Korea, including the poverty that limited their food, electricity, and education for much of their childhoods and their eventual escape to South Korea. The event, "An Insider's View on North Korea," was co-hosted by Duke Amnesty International and Vision for North Korea, and included a short documentary about North Korean refugees in East Asia.

Speaking to a packed house at Schiciano Auditorium, Kim discussed his family's impoverishment in North Korea and how it delayed his education by four years. After escaping to South Korea via China and Thailand in 2007, Kim completed his secondary education. Now, he wants to pay it forward and hopes for a day when the two Koreas are once again unified.

"I have found a dream to become an elementary school teacher," Kim said. "When North Korea and South Korea become a unified country, there will be a lot of kids like me and I would like to become a teacher for them, like the teachers who cared for me and took me in."

Yang's mother was the first member of his family to leave North Korea. After she made it safely to South Korea, Yang and his sister escaped through China and crossed the Yellow Sea to the port city of Inchon in 2007. Their father joined them in 2010. Now as Yang prepares to start college, he has also found a new dream.

"I want to become a physical therapist," Yang said. "My life is not very long and not so special, but I will always work hard to create a better life."

The evening was sprinkled with light moments, including Kim's humorous anecdotes about "sporting events" in North Korean elementary schools.

"During sports days, we would have a photo of an American set up and we would run toward this photo and hit it with sticks," Kim said. "Because I was four years older than everyone else, I always won that event."

Event organizer Kelly Heo, a senior, met Kim when she volunteered at a North Korean refugee alternative school in South Korea after her sophomore year. The next summer, Heo returned to the same school and met Yang. However, it was Heo's experiences in North Korea last summer, as part of her honors thesis research, that motivated her to invite Kim and Yang to Duke.

"Everyone there was just trying to live a normal life," Heo said. "It shouldn't have been surprising, but it was. That's when I realized we needed to have some more awareness about North Korea outside of what we hear on the news."

Heo worked with ACLS Faculty Fellow and North Korea expert Cheehyung Kim to organize the event. Cheehyung Kim pointed out that even though the United States watches North Korea closely, most Americans know almost nothing about the country.

"North Korea is so vilified and exoticized in the media," Cheehyung Kim said. "We as responsible members of the Duke community should move away from this kind of black-and-white picture and see North Korea as a complex place where people are just trying their best to create their own life."

Senior Mike Qu said Kim and Yang taught him that he has much in common with the young speakers.

"Even though their lives in North Korea were so difficult, they are just normal guys," Qu said. "Jeongho and Cheoljun are considering professions that my friends and I might also consider. Despite their experiences, they are still trying to make tomorrow better than today, just like everyone else."