THE WORD hunger holds little significance in much of the world today. Especially in countries such as the United States where food is abundant, obesity rather than starvation has become a critical social issue. In most such developed countries where basic needs are more than met, the struggle to climb up the employment ladder is often the usual source of vexation, rather than the contention to survive. Hence, let us imagine a place where one would not only have to juggle the stresses of competing in the job market, but also strain to gather daily meals. In this nation, hunger is all that most people know. This is the picture of a destitute North Korea. A recent graduate of Yonsei University and current student at Sogang Law School, Kang Ryong, has a past that is rooted in this illustration. *The Yonsei Annals* met with him to discuss his life in North Korea and the journey he has begun since escaping his country to the South.
Q: How was your life in North Korea?
Though I received the best education that was offered there at that time at the Kim Hyung-Jik Education University, my educational standing was not enough to penetrate the rigid hierarchy of class in North Korea. There were students who did not need to study hard because their future was set by the circumstances and social hierarchy they were born into.
Some people did find ways to climb up the ladder by way sacrificing their integrity. However, my own parents chose the path of honest living, by not adhering to the rules of the power-hungry, such as reporting against neighbors and friends or bribing the authorities with unwarranted allegiance and money. We were simply victims of an oppressive system who could not find the means to provide for our needs. Thus, my parents and younger sister met death by the slow and painful process of starvation and sickness. I could not even conduct a proper burial because I did not have the money to buy a casket or to arrange a burial place. It was the greatest irony that I was going to school at one of the best institutions in North Korea for free, and yet my family and I were starving because food was not accessible. Secondary priorities such as education, usually considered to have substance only after basic needs have been met in other countries, took precedence – I could no longer live under such a system. I became convinced that I had to leave my country.
Q: Can you briefly describe your journey to South Korea?
I first travelled to China. The path was not an easy one. I endured a long train ride that lasted a month in which there was no source of water or electricity. Because it was in the winter, it was an even more gruesome journey. At the Chinese border I had to cross the river there, and as I got out of the river on the other side, it was so freezing that rocks stuck to the bottom of my feet and I had to peel off my skin to get them off. The aftermath of my escape was even more distressing. As I began to explore the possibility that I may never return to North Korea, I became overwhelmed with guilt and grief. I wanted to go back because I could not stand that I had left my family and that I would be apart from their graves. I felt as if I was betraying them. Eventually though, my distant family members in China convinced me to seek a better life in the South. After swimming across the river to China and seeking refuge with extended family there, I came here to South Korea.
Q: What were some of the challenges you faced after coming here and how did you overcome them?
When I finally arrived in the Republic of Korea, it was not easy sailing from there on in as most people expect. Cultural shock, propaganda-withdrawal, financial struggle, communication issues, capitalism, these were just some of the issues I had to deal with as I struggled to adjust to life in the South. After transferring to Yonsei University in 2008, the biggest problem I faced was finances as I painstakingly attempted to pay my bills and tuition while attending school. This was when I first began to understand the often fearfully depicted picture of capitalism that was propagandized in North Korea. After encountering the homeless people in the subway stations who were projected as the repercussions of a twisted system, it further instilled in me a fear of this foreign system. It took great pains and reeducation to break free from this mindset. In addition, school was a challenge in itself because the system here is so different from that in North Korea. Mainly, there were discrepancies in the level of education and competitiveness, and I was also many years older than most of my classmates as I had taken a break from school during my years of escape. I had to ardently commit to my studies to catch up to the rest of my younger classmates. Eventually though, I was able to reach the top of my class and even received compliments from my professors as having become the first North Korean to receive a scholarship for academic excellence. But this was achieved only through hard earned effort.
Ultimately, I was able to transit from being a beneficiary to becoming a benefactor as I began to make a difference in my community. I became the president of the Korean Reunification Club (KRC or *Tongilhanmadang*, a club at Yonsei that supports friendship and exchange between North and South Koreans), and made changes to the organization by including more South Koreans to balance a previously North Korean dominated group. I also participated in the first ever establishment of an association outside of the university called New Korea Youth Network (NKYN), which allowed refugees of North Korean descent to meet and discuss issues involving North Korea and seek solutions to North Korean refugee problems. There were undoubtedly many times when I despaired and could not see a way out of the dark. However, after finding meaning in my life after becoming a man of faith and realizing my purpose in helping my fellow kinsmen, hope led me through these difficult times.
Q: What are your future plans?
I am currently attending Sogang Law School and aspiring to study reunification law, refugee/immigration law, and intellectual property law. I want to stay true to my purpose and the vision that God has given me to help my community in the field of law. Often, I forget about my past life because I am so happy in the present with my family my beautiful wife and son. So as not to lose sight of my values and the person I have become through this hard journey and to remember my roots, once a month I refrain from eating one meal. I want to make sure that I stay true to who I am and, at the same time, move forward full-speed toward my dreams for humanity.
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In life, many endure hardships and experience suffering. There are certain situations and environments that we are born into, without any input of our choice in the matter. Some are privileged with fortunate circumstances and enjoy the benefits of a stable home, fair government, and cultural openness. Then there are those like Ryong who have struggled under oppressive conditions. However, Ryong demonstrates that anyone can overcome their circumstances and that a better life is indeed possible. The words of Stephen King holds true, “Hope can set you free. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”