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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Liberty In North Korea club hosts North Korean refugee at event

Charles Ryu speaks to crowd about escaping North Korea and about his life in America. (DIANA LI / AGGIE)

Club hopes to raise enough money to rescue North Korean refugee

On Jan. 18, Liberty in North Korea hosted Charles Ryu, a 24-year-old North Korean defector, in the Student Community Center.

Soo Kyeom Lee, a UC Davis alumna and the original founder of LINK, hosted the event and discussed the club’s goals for the year.

“Our mission is to educate and raise awareness about the human rights crisis in North Korea,” Kyeom said. “This year our goal is simple, to rescue one refugee. To do so we need to raise $3,000.”

LINK began at Yale University in 2004 and has been at UC Davis for three years. Kyeom thanked those in attendance and their contribution to LINK’s cause, stating that attendees were “part of the rescue mission.”

Kyeom then introduced the event’s speaker, Charles Ryu. Ryu told attendees his story of growing up in North Korea and escaping twice before eventually ending up in America.

Ryu was born in 1994 to a North Korean mother and a Chinese father. When Ryu was 5, in the midst of the famine going on in North Korea, Ryu’s father abandoned him and his mother and sought refuge in China.

Six years later, Ryu’s mother died from starvation. Ryu spent the next few years of his life homeless and begging for food. At 14, Ryu escaped North Korea for the first time with the help of his Chinese half-brother. After bribing the guards, Ryu was able to swim across the river and meet his estranged father who cared for him for the next year.

Ryu was eventually discovered by the Chinese police and was deported back to North Korea, as China does not currently recognize North Korean refugees.

“I was convinced I would be shot the moment I crossed the border,” Ryu said. “But I realized killing me would have been too nice for the regime. They wanted me to confess to trying to defect.”

Because Ryu had not been trying to defect and instead was only seeking his father and better living conditions, he was transported to a labor camp. At the age of 15, Ryu spent eight months in a labor camp until he was too weak to support his own body weight. He was then released. For the next year, Ryu regained his strength and worked in a mine. After seeing countless friends lose limbs and die due to working conditions, Ryu decided to try to escape again.

After stealing flashlights and selling them in the black market, stowing away on a train and running to a border town, Ryu was able to cross the river again and escape into China. From there, Ryu’s life beyond the North Korean border began.

In America, Ryu graduated high school and currently works with LINK. Ryu has given talks about his experiences and hopes to eventually go to a university to study computer science.

When fielding questions from the audience, Ryu discussed the role foreign movies played in his disillusionment with the North Korean regime.

“That really changed my perspective, watching foreign media,” Ryu said. “It was really easy for me to get my hands on foreign media.”

Ryu’s Chinese half-brother was able to smuggle him CDs and movies. “007” and “Bad Boys” were among the notable movies Ryu grew up watching. From there, Ryu would burn copies and sell them on the black market. Ryu insisted that the majority of the North Korean economy revolves around the black market.

“They found their way to survive,” Ryu said. “[The black market] got really big. It was too big to fail. The government can’t control it.”

Ryu claimed that 99.9 percent of the North Korean economy depends on the black market. He also said that most of what is sold is manufactured in China.

Ryu spoke about the culture of bribery within North Korea.

“It is very easy to bribe guards in North Korea because everyone seeks opportunity to feed their family,” Ryu said. “It’s not that we want to bribe them, they want bribes from us.”

After Ryu’s presentation, Kyeom thanked those who attended the event and encouraged individuals to seek out more information about North Korea and to get involved.

Caitlin Perkey, a third-year international relations major and a public relations officer at LINK, spoke about Ryu’s positive attitude.

“He’s a very humorous and chill person to be around,” Perkey said. “Charles has overcome numerous instances of hardship where the world was very unforgiving.”

Ryu engaged with audience members throughout the event, making jokes and stayed well after the event to meet those in attendance.


Written by: Ally Russell — campus@theaggie.org


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