‘Now I Know What Freedom Is’: One Young Man’s Escape From North Korea

Observers first see Ilhyeok Kim’s joyful, room-lighting smile before they notice he is relatively short—because he is North Korean defector short. 

“For me, freedom means that when I want to do something, I’ll do it, and if I don’t want to do something, I don’t have to do it,” Kim told The Daily Signal last month at an event in Washington hosted by the group Liberty in North Korea. 

“Now I know what freedom is,” he added.

When he escaped communist North Korea at 17 years old and made his way to South Korea, Kim weighed less than 88 pounds and stood 4-foot-11. The average 17-year-old male in South Korea weighs 138 pounds and stands 5-foot-8. 

Most North Koreans are 5 inches shorter and 15 pounds lighter than South Koreans because they grow up knowing hunger and hard labor under the communist regime. 

“In North Korea, whatever you harvest on your farm is the government’s to take,” Kim, now 24, said. “The regime didn’t care if its citizens died from starvation. Usually, we were only given enough rations to survive for two months. Then the hunger would set in.”

Kim was born into punishment under North Korean law for a crime he didn’t commit. 

“My father stole [military] food and grains from a general food storage area,” he told The Daily Signal. 

Barely any food was available in his hometown of Saebyul from February to June each year, Kim said, and his father and his father’s friends stole food from the government in 1991 because they were starving.  

Authorities caught his father after he dropped a sack that had his own mother’s name on it. 

‘I Wasn’t Able to Dream’

“Because of this … my family suffered from a collective punishment law.” Kim said. “I wasn’t able to dream or have my own path.” 

In North Korea, the state punishes families for the actions of parents or grandparents because of the “three generations of punishment” rule. The country’s first communist leader, Kim Il Sung, decreed that up to three generations should suffer punishment to wipe out the “seed” of class enemies.

Every day, Ilhyeok Kim’s family struggled to survive off the land. 

“My family was so poor that I helped them with farming and fishing when I was 10 years old,” Kim told The Daily Signal. 

Today, Kim is a senior studying political science and diplomacy at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, South Korea. He says he hopes to go to graduate school in the United States. 

He attended the Oct. 10 event in Washington as a Liberty in North Korea advocacy fellow, sharing his story with the world.

At no charge, Liberty in North Korea leads North Koreans through secret escape routes in China and Southeast Asia. Student activist Adrian Hong founded the group in March 2004 during the 18th annual Korean American Students Conference. Nonprofit and nonpartisan, it has an international presence in Southeast Asia and the U.S.

But Liberty in North Korea didn’t exist when Kim’s family fled eight years ago.

“I want to become a businessman because I want to earn a lot of money to help the people in North Korea,” Ilhyeok Kim says. (Photo: Liberty in North Korea)

‘Let’s Go to South Korea’

As he tells the story of his family’s escape from the most isolated country in the world, Kim radiates enthusiasm and deep-seated happiness. 

Although the North Korean regime had imprisoned his father, Kim said, he was one of its most faithful supporters as a child.

“When I heard a story about [the Kim Il Sung regime,] I would feel my heart welling up with passion,” Kim said. “Since the age of 5, even after going to school, even after work, you just learn about [Kim Il Sung’s grandson and current North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un as if he were a god. The majority of North Koreans still are very loyal.”

When Ilhyeok Kim was 13, the government imprisoned his father for four more years in a forced labor camp. His crime? He used a Chinese cell phone sent to him by a friend who had defected to South Korea. 

“A lot of people died there,” Kim said, “but he survived and came home.”

After Kim’s father returned to the family’s home near the Chinese and Russian border, the government suspected he would defect. The secret police parked their cars on the road outside the house, hid in the family’s cornfields, and barged into their rooms at night while they were asleep to make sure they were still there.

“They even recruited our next-door neighbor, who was very close to us, to constantly monitor our family. My best friends were watching us too,” Kim said.

In 2011, he fled along with his father and 10 other family members and acquaintances.

“One day, my father told me, ‘Hey, there is no hope in this country. Let’s go to South Korea,’” Kim said. “We crossed the border the day after he told us that.”

‘I Was Scared’

To slip past surveillance, Kim recalled, “Our family left home late in the night when it rained [and] hid for a long time near the Tumen River.”

At dawn, they crossed the shallow, polluted Tumen into a desolate, less-patrolled region of China along the border, just as more than 1,000 other North Koreans who attempt the journey do each year. 

When a North Korean flees into China, Kim said, “The North Korean National Security Agency calls the Chinese police and asks them to arrest anyone who escaped.”

Three thousand miles of Chinese police and security checkpoints stood between his family and freedom. By taxi, bus, freight car, and on foot, Kim’s family traveled in fear. 

Kim called the journey “tragic.”

“I was scared. If I had been caught, all my family members would end up in political prison camps or we could be executed,” he said. “All the time in China was a moment of crisis. One should not relax for a second because it is China, where you don’t know when and where you’ll get caught. I had to hold fast to my heart, which [bounced] high like a ball whenever I passed a Chinese security checkpoint.” 

Kim said he pretended to be mute or disabled to avoid getting caught. 

His closest call came when police checked a bus he was riding. 

“I had to hide in a cleaning basket,” he said. “At this time, even if one of the Chinese on the bus told the police that I was hiding in a cleaning kit, I was in danger of being caught right away.”

His family and the others walked a single footstep away from freedom or slavery, life or death. 

The fear of boarding buses and trains that would be searched “seemed to stop my heart,” Kim said.

‘I Don’t Get My Hopes Up’

After they left China, Kim’s family traveled through Southeast Asia’s mountains and jungles, “where danger lurks,” he said. 

Kim’s family and those with them successfully escaped. Now they all live somewhere in South Korea, working or studying, he says. 

After only six months in South Korea, Kim said, he grew almost 4 inches taller. 

“Only one of the men in my entire [South Korean] school was shorter than me,” Kim told The Daily Signal in a follow-up email. 

Being embarrassed about his height “was my biggest complex,”  he wrote.

Now, Kim said, “My ultimate goal is to work at the United Nations in order to work on North Korean human rights issues.”

It’s clear from listening that he has said this before, but his voice fills up as he talks about his dream.

From his experience under the regime, Kim said, he doesn’t think that North Korea’s government will give up its nuclear weapons. 

“I don’t even get my hopes up when Kim Jong Un and [President Donald] Trump are meeting. I don’t think that North Korea will ever denuclearize, and Kim Jong Un will never give up on his power.”

‘A Free Life’

If he doesn’t work for the U.N., Kim said, he’d like to go into business.

“I want to become a businessman because I want to earn a lot of money to help the people in North Korea,” he said.

Other North Korean defectors at the event in Washington also described being driven to help other North Koreans after experiencing freedom. 

Kim said his journey to freedom gave him a desire to help North Koreans who are still on the other side of the border.

“In North Korea, I had to do things I didn’t want to do,” Kim said. “I would have to do manual work, or I was forced to memorize Kim Il Sung’s revolutionary history.”

“Now I know what freedom is. Now I’m studying what I want to. I travel to anywhere I want to go. I’m living in a free life.”

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