How James Bond, Tom Cruise and Will Smith helped street child escape North Korea via China
Charles Ryu, now living in the United States, spent nine months in a labour camp in his teens after his first attempt to flee the reclusive state
Charles Ryu became an 11-year-old street child in North Korea in 2005 after his mother died of starvation during a famine.
His Chinese father had moved back to China when he was five, abandoning the family, and after an aunt kicked him out when harsher food rations were imposed he was left to scrounge for food on the streets.
Life was especially hard during the winter months and Ryu and his young friends did whatever they could, even illegal trading, to survive. One of the few forms of entertainment was watching foreign movies and to make extra cash to buy food he sold foreign movies to his friends after copying them on to memory sticks.
Their exposure to foreign media opened their eyes to the outside world and inspired Ryu and some of his friends to escape North Korea.
Now living in the United States, he first made the dangerous border crossing into China in 2008, when he was 14. He credits James Bond movies, those starring Tom Cruise, and Will Smith in the Bad Boys films with inspiring his escape.
“They got me curious about freedom and life outside North Korea,” he said, laughing at the memory. “We’d been brainwashed from a young age. Everything I was taught was a lie … the worst thing was being told North Korean people were richer than South Koreans. That’s what I learned in school.”
Ryu said movies and television shows from South Korea, the United States, China, Indonesia and Russia were popular.
“The younger generation has more access to foreign media through USB sticks and DVD players,” he said. “Those my age know everything going on. If they don’t watch, they have nothing to talk about and they’re not in the cool crowd.”
North Korea’s urban millennials – born in the 1980s and 1990s and now aged between 18 and 35 – are changing its society through their frequent access to foreign media and their reliance on illegal trading and capitalism, rather than the government, for their livelihood. The international NGO Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) estimates they comprise around a quarter of North Korea’s 26 million people.
“This illegal trade on the black market, foreign media exchange and the influence of foreign culture have made the younger generation think differently,” Ryu said. “We were influenced by the freedom and foreign culture (in TV shows and films) and imagined and wanted to experience that freedom. That led many of us to escape North Korea.
“They do reckless things. We’re not afraid of the government or to do things under the table like illegal trade.”
Sokeel Park from LiNK, which has helped more than 700 North Koreans, including children, defect to South Korea in the past few years, said North Korean refugees, especially millennials, were quietly contributing to seismic social changes within North Korea through word-of-mouth information exchange about the outside world that the government could not control.
“North Korean millennials grew up through North Korea’s famine and marketisation period, meaning many of them have been engaging in survival entrepreneurialism and accessing foreign media from an early age,” Park said. “This marks a significant generational change, puts them at the forefront of social change in North Korea, and puts them more at odds with the government’s traditional propaganda and ideologies.”
LiNK says more than 30,000 North Korean refugees live in South Korea and about half of them smuggle around US$15 million in resources and money to their families in North Korea through brokers and illegal Chinese mobile phones each year.
Ryu’s generation learned not to rely on the government because their parents struggled and starved through a famine in 1994.
“My parents’ generation didn’t trust the government any more,” he said. “We saw our parents depend on the black market and not the government.”
Millennials, more sceptical of the personality cult surrounding North Korea’s ruling Kim dynasty, engaged more in illegal trade than older North Koreans. Their grandparents’ generation was more loyal to the regime.
“When Kim Il-sung [the founder of North Korea] was alive, North Koreans didn’t struggle as much as under [his son] Kim Jong-il,” Ryu said. “North Korea was wealthier than China back then.”
Professor Obi Ebbe, a sociologist at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga who is a leading international expert on illegal or immoral state activities, said: “In every totalitarian regime like that of North Korea ‘black market business’ is a truism. It is a method of economic survival, because scarcity of goods and services is a common feature of a totalitarian regime.
“Some Koreans inside North Korea had to resort to making secret business and hiding their small wealth by all means. This is because some of them do not trust their system of government. It could collapse any time, they think.”
Ryu said private business was illegal in North Korea but a black market had been flourishing since the late 1990s, selling items such as flooring, motorcycles and mobile phones that government stores did not offer.
Jenny Town, assistant director of the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said there were more than 400 formal, “government regulated” marketplaces in North Korea “where vendors pay fees to have space”.
Such markets, known as sijang, were no longer regarded as black markets and sold items including smartphones and top fashion brands.
“Anecdotes note a number of consumer goods, some of which come from China, some locally produced,” she said. “There are other street and country markets that pop up on the fly, but I wouldn’t call them black markets.”
Whether recent sanctions, including those imposed by China, had hit North Korea hard or at all was more difficult to quantify.
“Technically, the type of goods traded in the markets are not sanctioned goods,” Town said. “North Korea will certainly be affected in the longer term, but it will take some time to see.”
She said some goods and commodities North Korea could no longer export, such as coal, were finding their way to domestic markets.
North Korea analyst Brian Moore, formerly a Pacific Forum CSIS research fellow, said the new elite or “rising economic class” – known as the donju (owners of money) – were those benefiting from the liberalisation of a black market economy now operating out in the open.
“They often have relationships across the border with China that allow them to be effective traders, as well as decent relationships with, or family members in, the government in Pyongyang,” he said.
Ryu worked with a friend’s mother who had a black market business selling foreign movies that had been pirated in China. She used a computer bought on the black market to download movies onto empty CDs that Ryu provided. He sold each CD for 5,000 North Korean won (now worth about US$35), would keep 2,000 North Korean won, buy more CDs and then pay 3,000 North Korean won to buy more movies.
He said most North Koreans watched South Korean dramas and knew “everything” about the outside world.
“We’re taught every other country is poor. Our leaders are the best in the world. We have to make weapons and bombs to defend ourselves from South Korea and the US,” he said. “When I was in North Korea, they said we are poor but if we reach a certain amount of weapons we’re going to be great. Everything was a lie.”
Ryu said the younger generation was more willing to take risks because they had no choice but to fight to survive.
“[Millennials] don’t really care about what the North Korean government is trying to do or trying to teach them,” he said. “They go to work on a farm, they go fishing and do whatever to get money. I had the mindset I had to keep myself alive. We did whatever to stay alive, including illegal business.”
In 2008, when Ryu was 14, his father sent his Chinese half-brother, a son from a second marriage, to find him and help him escape for the first time. But after nine months living with his father, Chinese police detained him for being an illegal economic migrant and deported him to North Korea.
The North Korean authorities sent Ryu to a labour camp for nine months, where he said the guards abused him and only gave him 50 kernels of corn to eat each day.
“I could count my rib cage and feel myself getting weaker,” he said. “We worked 12 hours straight every day. I was so hungry I tried to pick the [undigested] corn from my poo.”
One day he was so desperate he dived to the ground to try to eat dried rice in a pile of vomit baking in the sun. The guards beat him.
“They were punishing us and starving us to death to teach us a lesson,” he said. “It’s what happens when we betray the North Korean government. We were treated worse than animals.”
Ryu then went to a coal mine, where he worked for almost a year. Many of his friends working there were killed or lost legs or arms. One, hit by a rock, died in front of him. “I realised if I stayed there, in the coal mine, it was a matter of time, I’d lose my life,” he said.
Still only 16, he sneaked onto a train to get to a town on the Chinese border and then swam across the Yalu River, which separates the two countries. Once in China, he walked for three days on bleeding and bruised feet, with no food and water. After he collapsed in the middle of a road and cried for help, a man on a motorcycle stopped and helped him find his father’s home.
His father, the son of a Chinese soldier who fought in the Korean war and stayed behind in North Korea, urged him to go to the South Korean embassy in Thailand to defect to Seoul. Ryu hired people smugglers to help him get to Thailand.
“I was so scared most of the time,” he said. “If I got caught, I would have been publicly executed for escaping North Korea to go to South Korea.
“I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t have ID. I had to pretend I was sleeping all the time. When people asked me something. I was afraid of being reported on. We travelled by bus, smaller van, motorcycles, with two other North Koreans.”
However, Ryu was not accepted as a North Korean by the South Korean government because of his Chinese father. He ended up in an international refugee detention centre in Southeast Asia before the United Nations helped him get to America, where he arrived on September 28, 2012, aged 17.
He lived with a Chinese foster family for several years and finished high school in 2015. With counselling, he has healed some of the trauma of his experiences. “I used to scream and wake up at night,” he said. “My bed was wet with night sweats for a year in high school.”
Ryu, now 23, has recently learned coding and wants to find a job as a software engineer.
“One day I want to make an awesome app to reach all of the North Korean people,” he said. “It’s a miracle I got out. Despite all the troubles and sadness I went through, now that I’m here, I want to return and do something good about it.”
He now campaigns with LiNK in the US to raise awareness about the dangers facing North Korean refugees.
“I really wish the Chinese government would give North Korean refugees safe passage to South Korea or another third country,” he said. “They should stop sending them back to North Korea. We don’t want refugee status to live in China. Most are deported back ... and face prison and execution.”