Columbia student Austin first fled North Korea with his parents at the age 13. Then, two years later he was recaptured in China, re-incarcerated in his home country, and had to escape again. Having broken out of a North Korean prison camp, he told The Tab how he made his way to South Korea, where he was able to attend high school. After (a few years) in New Zealand, he received a scholarship from a small Korean church in Midland, Texas – which was how he first came to the United States five years ago.
After two years in Texas, he transferred to Columbia. He now studies political science and works with a charity (group) called “Liberty in North Korea,” which helps people escape the totalitarian regime. Now, 17 years on from his first escape attempt, Austin is one of the determined, intelligent and inspiring people who make Columbia’s School of General Studies what it is today.
We met Austin – who requested anonymity to protect his family back home – and he told us what he recalls of his life in and escape from the most isolated country in the world.
“… I left North Korea for the first time in 1999 with my parents. I was only 13. We left because starting in 1995, there was a huge famine, and a lot of people died from hunger. The United Nations announced the estimated number of people who died were three million. It was the end of the 20th Century and so many people were excited to see the new millennium but in North Korea, a country surrounded by thriving economies like South Korea, China and Japan, we had a tragic famine and starvation.
Not many people were aware of the situation because as you know North Korea is very exclusive, that’s why its nickname is the Hermit Kingdom. My parents decided we needed to leave the country, (though it’s very difficult to succeed.) Still we escaped. My parents organized all the routes and they bought brokers who (could) help. We (made) to China (and) lived in China for two years. As a defector in China, it was so crazy because if you get caught by Chinese police, you’re sent back to North Korea. And worst case, you die in prison because North Korea treats defectors as betrayers of the Great Leader.
Unfortunately, in 2001, my family was caught by Chinese police so we were imprisoned. One week later they repatriated us to North Korea. So we were sent to prison. But because I was young, only 15, they separated me from my parents and took me to a youth prison. My parents were still in the main prison. On the first day…, I saw three kids: two boys, one girl. But that girl… when I first saw her, I was shocked, stunned. Her ankles were cut off. She was moving only with her two arms. I immediately knew that if I stayed, I would become like that or die.
That very first day, I was beaten by the guards because it was kind of a “welcome ceremony”, because you were the betrayer of the Great Leader, you were a dog. It was very tough and painful because I was beaten (very severely.) I don’t know how long they were beating me, (because) I was a kid (and) knew nothing. Fortunately, they stopped and left me alone. That night, I prayed to God. I accepted Christianity when I was in China through Christian missionaries.
So I prayed to God: “Please save me, if you are living, if you are powerful, God, please rescue me from this prison. If you do, I will serve you and if you do, if you rescue me from this prison, I will come back to North Korea in the future and I will bring liberty and freedom and the gospel to the country.” I don’t know how but after the prayer, I felt peace. Somehow, strangely, I felt peace. It was an incredible moment.
The next morning, prisoners were being taken to do hard labor in the field. But since I just got there the day before, the guards let me stay in the prison cell with the other kids. One of the top guards of the prison came to me and he took me out of my cell. It was the middle of September and in North Korea, it’s like the beginning of winter. It’s very cold in the prison cell, we had windows but no glass, just bars. He ordered me to stay outside in the prison yard to keep myself warm in the sun. I saw it as the best chance to escape. I was slowly, slowly moving to the prison wall. Somehow, the wall near the public bathroom was half broken. I knew it was the route, the point where I could escape. I took the chance and the moment where other people didn’t notice me, I jumped over the wall. I just ran, ran, ran.
I think God answered my prayer because no one was yelling at me and no one was chasing. I ran two hours until I got to a safe place in a mountain side. Two days later, I crossed the border to China. It was really dangerous but I prayed to God. “Please God, please block the eyes and ears of the guards. Let me pass the border safely.” And I made it.
I lived in China for three years. Since I was Christian, a Christian Chinese family took care of me. After three years, we found a route to South Korea. It was 2005; I was 18 or 19. I went to high school for three years. My high school friends are four or five years younger than me. After high school, I went to college in New Zealand, and after finishing college in New Zealand, I came to the United States. It was a big challenge.
The reason I went to high school in South Korea was because I arrived (there) to live for the rest of my life but I knew nothing about this country. In order to have a successful resettlement, I knew that I needed to get an education. Because of my past years in North Korea and China, I had a seven-year absence from school. I decided to go to high school and I needed friends. I needed to get to know South Korean society and high school was a perfect place.
Gratefully, my high school accepted me even though I was much older than the rest of the students…. Everything was a challenge to me. The culture, making friends, so my first and second year of high school were miserable (for me.) I couldn’t associate with kids because, they were too young (for me.) I had been through so much crazy stuff and now I came back to school and was studying with kids who are playing games, who were so into K-pop and they go to karaoke, which I didn’t. It was hard for me to find common interests with my friends.
I gradually realized I shouldn’t look down at them. This is part of their generation’s culture. I came here to put myself in that mainstream. So I changed my attitude, and in my third year of high school, I began to make friends. At graduation, I think I was the one who got the most thank you letters from friends and teachers. It felt so nice, realizing people liked me. The beginning of high school I was miserable….That was the first time I encountered different people. Everything was strange to me. People were gossiping about their president – that was a deep, deep shock. People were criticizing him! How dare you criticize your leader, I thought. I was brainwashed, told not to question the party. That was all I knew. At the time it was shocking, but now I can criticize my president in South Korea, and Kim Jung Un in North Korea.
It feels good to say that. In North Korea, my parents worked for the government. My father was a party member and an officer. My mom wasn’t a party member but she worked for the government. I was too young to understand much. I went to school everyday. I was a bit rebellious. I loved hanging out with my friends, but was not studying. Every morning when I got up, I started my day thinking, what kind of excuse can I make to (stay) out of school?
We learned Korean history, language, Mathematics, English. They do teach English, you know. But we spent a lot of time learning about the Great Leaders.
By that time we had only two leaders – Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. We learned about how they liberated Korea from Japan’s colonization, and defeated American invaders. And it’s all crap! It’s not correct. But we were totally controlled by the government. We don’t have any a way to verify what we learned in school. So we just believed (everything they taught.) We believed that Kim Il-sung liberated Korea from Japan. But actually Korean independence was given by World War Two – Japan surrendered, and had to give up the Korean Peninsula.
North Koreans taught us that America invaded, which was how the Korean War broke out (they said.) But the fact is that North Korea invaded the South, and the South asked the United Nations for help. The United States wasn’t the only country (that helped)– there were 16 countries in the war defending South Korea. Those are the things we learned in school. Everything is very different from the West and South Korea.
South Koreans told me (that) North Korea is like South Korea in the 60s and 70s. People knew everyone in the village. If someone got married, all the village people would be invited. That was our daily life. Friends came to visit, and I visited them. We lived next door to (each other.) We went to school all together; We played into the evening until our parents called us for dinner. And then after dinner, if you didn’t have homework, you would go to play in someone’s backyard. We didn’t have computers, no Xbox, we had nothing. We climbed trees or went fishing. That’s all we did. North Korea has government (owned) farms, so sometimes we went to steal things from them (like) cucumbers or lettuce.
Studying at Columbia I’m a senior and I’m majoring in Political Science. The reason I chose Political Science is because in my life I considered myself a victim of politics. Because…a lot of people are affected by politics without being aware of the power. I have only been in the United States for five years now….
The value of America’s founding spirit is equality, freedom, and respect of human beings. Everyone is equal under God. But people like Trump, he’s so racist, he discriminates females, people of color. As a president, your perspective is always in policy and effect. In order to keep the value of America, I think Americans should be careful to choose a president who respects and values equality and freedom. (In) South Korea, politics are crap right now. A lot of South Koreans are passive. To keep democracy, people should participate and raise their voices to their politicians. That’s what I (hope for North Korea someday.)