Two student refugees from North Korea will speak about their experiences living in and escaping from the country Friday in an event sponsored in part by Duke Amnesty International and Vision for North Korea.
Jeongho Kim, 21, and Cheoljun Yang, 19, escaped North Korea as teenagers, traveling to China before eventually settling in South Korea. Senior Kelly Heo, who first found out about the pair two years ago, recently arranged for Kim and Yang to come to the United States with the help of nine sponsors. They arrived on campus Sunday.
Both students had family members who had escaped before them. Those family members paid off brokers to help transport them out of the country, the most common method of escape among North Korean refugees, Heo said.
Upon reaching China, Kim and Yang said their primary feeling was one of danger. The risk of being caught was always on their minds, they said. At the same time, both students quickly saw the benefits of leaving North Korea behind.
“In North Korea, when you shower, you have to use a bucket and pour it out,” Kim said with the help of Heo, who translated for both students. “But in China, there are showers.”
Although they now travel and speak together, Kim and Yang came from very different parts of North Korea. Kim lived in Musan, a city near the Chinese border, while Yang lived in Songlim, closer to the border with South Korea.
“I lived in an area of North Korea that’s really far south, so we were actually able to catch South Korean TV signals sometimes,” Yang said. “Where I lived, the people actually have a very good idea of what’s happening in the outside world. They have a lot of videos and movies and we were able to watch those, so I knew from a young age that [the North Korean government propaganda] was mostly a lie. People in my area were kind of aware of that.”
Kim, on the other hand, said that people in his hometown generally saw former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il as a role model.
“They thought he was number one,” Kim said. “The best.”
Their differences in perspective became apparent again when asked whether or not they knew about the nuclear weapons tests conducted by the North Korean government in recent years.
“No, we didn’t really know about that,” Kim said.
Yang, having lived 10 minutes from Pyongyang, disagreed.
“Of course we do, we know about that,” Yang replied.
Both students had always wanted to come to the United States, in part to improve their English speaking skills, Kim said. Yang added that his interest in the United States began as a child in Songlim, when he was able to watch a few American films.
“In school, they were always teaching that Americans were these really bad people,” Yang said. “But in these movies, they seemed different. After I got to South Korea, I learned even more about America, and then my interest just grew from there.”
Kim and Yang have had a full schedule in the area this past week, including lunches with Duke faculty and students as well as a talk at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Tuesday.
“The differences between Korean schools and this school are really interesting,” Yang said. “It’s really free and comfortable here. In Korea, students don’t really get to talk about their opinions or have any discussions, but here in America, there are a lot of discussion-based classes where students can really express their own opinions.”
In the future, Kim said, he plans on becoming an elementary school teacher. Yang, an avid Real Madrid fan, said he is interested in sports physical therapy. For now, both said they would like to continue to communicate their experiences in North Korea with American audiences.
The event will begin at 6:30 p.m. Friday and will be held at Schiciano Auditorium in the Fitzpatrick Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine and Applied Sciences. A reception with refreshments will be held afterward, when members will have the chance to speak with Kim and Yang.