North Korean, Now a Texan, Tells of Life Under Oppression, and Escape
By Alvaro Céspedes
In the 1990s, Joseph Han was one of the very few outstanding students to be accepted at one of North Korea’s public universities. But his college ambitions were cut short when a famine swept across the country.
In 1999, he risked his life and fled into China, and a few years later made it into South Korea. In 2009, he arrived in College Station, where he does advanced physics research at Texas A&M University.
Han is one of about 500 North Koreans living in the United States — people who escaped from one of the most oppressive regimes in the world. While he now enjoys a comfortable life, with a wife, three children and a good job, his story provides a window into a country that has become one of the most severe threats to the security of the United States.
President Kim Jong-Un was just 27 in 2011 when he succeeded his late father, Kim Jong Il, as “supreme leader” of the country. Kim Jong-Un has been conducting an increasing number of missile tests that threaten South Korea, Japan and the U.S. military base in Guam, and has declared his intention to make his country a nuclear power.
Food is in short supply, there is no Internet or access to information from outside the county, and everyday life is a struggle for many of the 24 million citizens. There are more than 120,000 political prisoners in forced labor camps, according to the George W. Bush Policy Institute, part of the Bush Presidential Center in Dallas.
Han declined to talk about some issues out of concern for the safety of relatives still in North Korea. He didn’t want to detail parts of his own escape. Had he been caught as a defector, he said, he would have been imprisoned or publicly executed.
Han was born in Chongjin, a town in the northern part of the country. In college, he studied physics but wanted some books that were not available in his country. He took a risk and smuggled the books from China.
“If someone knew that I read foreign books and that person reported me to the police, me or my whole family would be sent to prison camps,” he said.
In December 1996, Han had to drop out of college when a famine swept across the country, triggered by bad weather that destroyed many crops.
“The university asked me to provide food for myself, so I went back home and got a job as a high school teacher,” he told Reporting Texas.
Back in Chongjin, he tried to make some extra money by selling vegetables in a local street market – an illegal practice under the strict communist regime—and the principal of the school accused him of advocating capitalist ideas.
“He asked me, ‘You’re a young man, what are you doing in that market?’ I got angry and said to him, ‘I might be a young man, but I also need to eat,’” Han said.
As he watched people around him dying from the famine, Han decided to leave. He fled his home country in February 1999, risking his life.
Taking advantage of the region’s harsh winters, Han made it to the border with China, where he managed to walk across the frozen Tumen River.
“After I left North Korea, agents of State Security Department used to keep inquiring [asking] my mom where I went,” he said. But the government had no idea what had happened to him. “The national system was very chaotic due to the crisis in those days,” he said.
In China, North Korea’s closest ally, he stayed out of the sight of authorities, which were likely to deport defectors if they caught them.
Han sustained himself for 3 1/2 years by working odd jobs, including cutting wood, taking care of farm animals and waiting tables. He said abusive bosses exploited him.
“In most cases, I wasn’t paid,” he said. When he did get paid, “I received about one fifth of the worker’s income in China.”
But he saved whatever he could so he could flee to South Korea in 2003. The country is the primary destination for most North Korean refugees and grants them immediate citizenship. Han didn’t explain how he made it out of China, but said many refugees seek help from South Korean consulates there.
He enrolled in college and finished his undergraduate degree in physics and a master’s in experimental particle physics from Yonsei University in Seoul.
He then set his sights on getting to the U.S. to pursue a doctorate in nuclear physics. Han applied to Harvard and MIT, but decided that the Ph.D. program in advanced physics in Texas A&M was the best option for him.
He is now a postdoctoral research associate at the Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering at Texas A&M.
He still remembers the oppression of life in North Korea.
“Here, I can go to church if I want,” said Han, who is a Christian. “In North Korea, there are no churches, there is no religion. Also, in China, I read the Bible in a secret shelter for North Korean defectors which was supported by South Korean and American churches.”
The North Koreans living in the United States include some 200 refugees and 300 immigrants who are now South Korean citizens, according to Lindsay Lloyd, who leads the Freedom in North Korea Project at the Bush Institute. The project works to raise awareness about human rights abuses there, assists refugees with scholarships and makes policy recommendations.
The nonprofit Liberty in North Korea, with rescue teams in South Korea and the U.S., also helps refugees and assisted Reporting Texas in connecting with Han.
The famine that Han escaped eventually killed his father and countless other North Koreans. As the food shortage worsened, Lloyd said, “The problem was aggravated by the government’s policies. As resources became more scarce, the first shot of any food would go to the elite, the military and the ruling party.”
There is no publicly available official data on how many people died in the famine from 1994 to 1999, but the Bush Institute calculates that between 200,000 and 2 million people lost their lives, or as much as one eighth of the population.
Before the famine, the Kim regime was seen as one that provided for the people. But afterward, young people in particular became more skeptical and cynical, Lloyd said.
Han’s mother and sister left the country shortly after he did and now live in South Korea. His brother managed to escape while working for the North Korean government in Russia and eventually made it to South Korea.
Despite the sharp cultural differences, North Koreans adapt well to life in the United States, Lloyd said.
“Actually most of these people are doing well. They’re not on public assistance. They’re working or going to school and they’re adapting well to life in the U.S. […] On balance they’re doing fine, but it’s a difficult transition,” he said.
Han now uses an American first name, but said he’s had to adjust to some aspects of life in Texas.
“People are very individual; they have to do everything by themselves. If I have some problem, I need to fix it by myself.”
But, he added, “Nobody dies of starvation here.”