If you’re anything like me, you probably use your phone on a daily basis to get help from people you’ve never met before through services like Lyft, Uber, Instacart, and Rinse. These types of businesses make it easy to get help while simultaneously increasing our interactions with strangers every day. The A Long Road Home podcast offers a new perspective on the people behind the on-demand apps that you use every day.

In every season of A Long Road Home, we’ll feature a story of an individual who works in the on-demand economy and has overcome adversity to be where they are today.

In our first season, we tell the story of Cheol "Charles" Ryu, who is a refugee from North Korea. Against all odds, Charles has survived being abandoned by his family, becoming a prisoner of the North Korean government, and being an indentured slave in a coal mine. He daringly escaped from North Korea when he was 17 and now lives in the South Bay, where he works for Lyft and studies software engineering.

In this, our second episode, of our first season, Charles tells us about his relationship with his estranged father, how he was recaptured by the North Korean government, why he ended up working in a coal mine, and what life is like as a homeless child in North Korea. It's an amazing story, so let's get to it!

I hope you enjoy the second episode of A Long Road Home!

 

 

Season 1 // Episode 2 Transcript

 

Benjamin: Hello listeners and thanks again for joining us for the second episode of the first season of A Long Road Home. This podcast is a collection of real world stories about the people behind the apps that you use every day. In our first episode, we introduced you to Cheol “Charles” Ryu. Charles defected from North Korea when he was 17 and is now working as a lift driver in Silicon Valley. When we first met Charles, he told us about his experience growing up in North Korea, how he grew up without parents, and why he escaped to China to meet the father that abandoned him when he was a young boy. If you haven't already, I recommended that you go back to listen to the first episode of this podcast before today's episode. That said, in today's episode, Charles is going to tell us about his relationship with his estranged father, how he was recaptured by the North Korean government, why he ended up working in a coal mine, and what life is like as a homeless child in North Korea. It's an amazing story, so let's get back to it. Here's a little bit more from Charles. So let me go back to your first escape. That's a big risk. Tell me about what you were feeling and why you wanted to take that risk.

 

Charles: Well, I was only 14. I didn't know anything. I didn't know it was going to be a risk. By brother said, "There is going to be a smuggler to help you out and there are going to be no risk or ... So, if you go to China, your father is Chinese, so the cops won't come and arrest you. Nobody is going to harass you. Nobody is going to say anything. You are Chinese." So I didn't know anything about risk. I thought like, "Okay, happy ever after." When I got to China side, the really one great thing about the China was the TV channel. It has hundreds of channels. In North Korea, they have only one channel which is educational broadcasting, like only thing, how do we make Kim Il-sung feel better? Kim Jong-il, feel better? How do we worship him? Anyways, I saw the banana and pineapple. In North Korea, they don't have it because it's really expensive and valuable, so I never had ate a banana before. My father says, "Okay, you can eat this," so my father hands me one banana. I didn't know. I just ate it with the covers on. When I ate it, it was so bitter. It was really bitter, and I didn't know. "Oh my God, why people eat this? It's really bitter."

Benjamin: So you ate the banana peel?

Charles: Yeah, banana peels, whole peels. My father was laughing at me. I did the same as the pineapple too. You had the rind, I ate that too. It was so bitter, oh my God. But my life was really great because I could eat all the things that I never tasted before, and I could watch foreign movies. I could watch foreign dramas, just like a paradise. But somehow, my father started to hate at me because you don't even wanted to have the child, and you haven't known the child for 10 years, and you just met him, so he was sick of me being there after six months. I mentioned that he had a third wife. The third wife's from North Korea, and the third wife, she brings her children, three children, all girls, so we live all together. I don't know, he liked the girls and never like to hang out with me anymore. And when he'd go out, he'd only go out with the girls. He'd never be with me. Even my birthday, he never bought me a cake. He never bought me clothes. What I did was, if my step-mother give me $10 or $20 in Chinese money ... Every week she gave me money to use for the whole week and to go buy snacks or something like that. I went to used clothes store to buy the clothes because my father doesn't buy me clothes, so I have to buy it myself. And you know what he said ... In china, you don't really buy the clothes because the clothes that is for sale it's is because they're selling it because the previous owners are dead. "You are wearing a dead person's clothes." "Buy me something then, just buy me some clothes. You are not getting me any clothes, so I have to do it myself."

Benjamin: So he wouldn't buy anything for you, and then he didn't like that you were going to the used clothes store?

Charles: Yeah, to buy it, because I don't have any money, but the only thing I could buy with it is the used store, used clothing store. But he didn't like it because it's a dead person's clothes, and he doesn't want me to bring in the house. Anyways, so he had three girls in the house, and one day, in 2009, January, they got in trouble. They say North Korean girls they are really ... they have like stealing and that kind of things, like lying and stealing, and I don't know what they did, but they brought the cops with them.

Benjamin: The girls brought a cop, a police officer?

Charles: Yeah, Chinese police officers to our house, and then he asks me, show me your ID. Show me your birth certificates. To my father, where is Charles birth certificate? And also, I don't speak any Chinese, because my father also cannot prove that I'm Chinese, and even though I'm his son, he doesn't have any way to prove it. So I got caught with all the family except my father, the three girls, me, and the mother, step-mother. She was also North Korean. So four of us. The one girl, the oldest girl of my step-mother's daughter, she got married to a China, so four of us were get caught.

Benjamin: So, hang on a second. There's the three daughters that your father had with his third wife, and the three girls cause some sort of trouble. A police officer comes to the house. They realize that you don't have a birth certificate, and so your step-mother, your father, and two of the girls are in trouble?

Charles: No, so who in trouble is ... because the girls aren't my real father's daughters, so he never knew them before, but after he met the third wife, it's the third wife's children. So when the two girls brought the cops at home, only me, her, and the other two children they are in trouble. Because my father's Chinese.

Benjamin: Oh, so the third mother, the third wife is North Korean?

Charles: Yeah, she was North Korean.

Benjamin: So the third wife is North Korean?

Charles: Yes.

Benjamin: The daughters are North Korean?

Charles: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Benjamin: And you are North Korean.

Charles: Yeah.

Benjamin: But your father is Chinese?

Charles: Chinese.

Benjamin: So the four of you are in trouble. He is not.

Charles: Yeah, he's not in trouble. It used to be five of us, but the one got married to a Chinese guy, a disabled guy, and then we got caught in China January 9, 2009. So eventually, the police officers came into my door and got us up, and then they sent us to Chinese jail which is in [Foreign 00:07:26] it's like a transaction-

Benjamin: Processing?

Charles: Yeah, processing. I was in the Chinese prison for 17 days almost, and then after that, they sent me to North Korea.

Benjamin: Before you go on to North Korea, what was Chinese jail like?

Charles: Well, Chinese jail was a little bit better, because I've never been to North Korean jail before until I get caught in China. The first time experiencing Chinese jail, it was okay because they fed us well, and even though it was a jail, they fed us with the meat. I was so surprised, they feed us the meat, and white rice, and eggs, and stuff, and then it was kind of free, kind of free. They just let us do whatever we want because they know tomorrow we are going to be transported to North Korea, and then we are going to be starved to death. They know already. So like, "Let them be free."

Benjamin: Were the people in China friendly?

Charles: No, they are not definitely friendly. So if we are trying to talk them back, like let's say, go to sleep, or they just want us to be straight, and if we say something back, they are going to come in with the guards and hit us with the stick.

Benjamin: Okay, so there is discipline in the Chinese jail, but they feed you well, and allow you to do what you want during the day?

Charles: Yes, exactly. Then February 9th I got caught, and I don't really exactly remember, but I think it was January 9th, and I got deported back to North Korea in January 20-something. I don't exactly remember the date.

Benjamin: Let's take a quick moment to recap what we've just heard from Charles. The main takeaways from this segment are that Charles defected from North Korea to China to reunite with his estranged father. In China, Charles was exposed to life outside of the reach of the North Korean propaganda machine. In addition to living with his father, who is a Chinese citizen, Charles also lived with his step-mother and her three daughters, who were North Koreans. Charles's father neglected Charles in favor of his new family which lead to strife in their relationship. Less than a year after Charles arrived in China, his step-sisters caught the attention of the Chinese police which lead to Charles and the rest of his family, except his father, getting arrested for being in the country illegally. Then Charles, his step-mother, and his step-sisters were sent to Chinese jail and were eventually deported back to North Korea. This recap was brought to you by Pro Tier. Pro Tier is a service that provides independent contractors the ability to quickly and easily form a business. If you're a 10-99 contractor, Pro Tier will create a business license for you that will help you save thousand of dollars by allowing you to allocate your expenses, like gas and your cell phone, to your business. For $50 a year, you can turn your contract work into a real business. To start a business, visit pro-tier.com. That's P-R-O dash T-I-E-R dot com and use promo code BENJSHAP for 50% off your first year of service. Pro Tier. Okay, let's get back to Charles.

Charles: There was a lot of people in big trucks. It wasn't that big, but it was kind of big, so we handcuff each other's hands like this. Also it had a fence, the metal fence.

Benjamin: So you're chained together?

Charles: Yeah, chained up, so we cannot escape, with my father's wife and two other kids, so a total of four of us. We got into a North Korean jail and then they tortured us. Well, they didn't torture me, but kind of, because I was a kid. I was only 14 years old, so by the time when I get caught in North Korean jail, from the Chinese and deport back to North Korea, there wasn't enough room to put us all because the prison rooms are small.

Benjamin: The prison in North Korea?

Charles: Well, it's not a prison. It's like a first process of questioning, like find out the main purpose of escaping North Korea.

Benjamin: Interrogation?

Charles: Interrogation, is that what you call it?

Benjamin: They're trying to get information out of you to understand why you broke the law?

Charles: Yes, so it's like a CIA. In North Korean it's called a [Foreign 00:11:39], the highest government is [Foreign 00:11:41]. We got caught over there, and then there wasn't enough room to put us all in the jail, so they put us ... with the child, they put us in an office, and then the very next room was a torturing room. At nighttime, we could hear them screaming because they've been getting solid torture hard with a really long stick, a really thick stick.

Benjamin: Bamboo?

Charles: Bamboo? Is it bamboo?

Benjamin: Bamboo is a type of wood, a hollow stick.

Charles: No it's more than that. It's like this really long stick, and they hit them in the legs and everything else. I can hear them screaming, "Ah, please." While it was fine in my term, but they didn't hit me that really hard because I was just a kid, and then I just told them, "Okay, I just went to find my father, and I just wanted to live with my father." And they just were like, "Okay," but [inaudible 00:12:27] Then around a month in the North Korean jail, then I got transferred to a bigger jail. So they have a small prison, and then big prison for transporting the people, escaping people, the victims, to their hometowns. I got in there. I was working there for eight months, forced working about eight months.

Benjamin: Let me ask you a question about the process once you are arrested. Do you get sentenced? Is there a trial? Is there any way for you to explain what you've done?

Charles: Yes. So when I get caught, I was a minor. I was 14 years old, 14 1/2 in North Korean age, so the first process of getting caught in North Korea ... So let's say Chinese government sends us back to North Korea, so the [Foreign 00:13:19] is going to question us. So where in China go, like a first questioning. Then from there, if you are okay ... if so let's say, "Okay, I just went to China because I was hungry. I just wanted to eat something. I just wanted to live my life." Then they are going say, "Okay," and they are going to let you go home. Then from the hometown, you will get sentenced. But if you have any evidence or any idea, or if you say something that, "I really wanted to go to South Korea," or "I really wanted to go to another country," then they are not going to let you go at all. They are just going to kill you there.

Benjamin: So if you're escaping because you're trying to survive, that's okay, but if you have an allegiance to another country, that's cause for death?

Charles: The reason why is that is because North Korea and South Korea is really enemies, and then North Korea is trying to make people believe what the North Korean government says, which is, "South Korea is really poor, poorer than us. We are the best." And then people try and go to South Korea, which is the completely different minded. So if they let them go to their hometown, and then they are going to get sentenced, which is like five or six years of the labor camp. They are going to get out some day, and they are going to tell other people that South Korea is rich, and they are going to know that. So they are not going to let them go at all. They don't want that to happen.

Benjamin: Okay, tell me more. You get sent back to your hometown.

Charles: It was a long journey. Then I got out. There was a lot of family stuff in the first jail, but anyways, so North Korea is really poor, so they don't even really have the rice. They just fed us with the corns every meal. So one month I was in the smaller [Foreign 00:15:05] which is like a CIA [inaudible 00:15:09] and then blah blah blah. I obviously didn't have any feeling to go to South Korea, so they just let me go to the bigger labor camp so I can ... after I work for them, serve them, then I can go home.

Benjamin: How long was your sentence?

Charles: I didn't get the sentence, really sentence. I'm going to make this easier. So in United States, every area there is a police officer. So let's say Concord Police department. If somebody is doing something wrong in Concord, people come to San Francisco doing something wrong, then Concord police officers, they are going to respond for the person who committed a crime in another city. Same as North Korea. So my hometown is in another city. If you've committed a crime, they have to come pick us up, and then bring us to home and then give a sentence. But since I was a child, they didn't sentence me at all. They just let me work until I die because they don't care. I'm just a child. But, thank God, before I died, I spent eight months in the labor camp. What they feed us is 50 kernel of the corns every meal, so breakfast, lunch, and dinner, for eight months. For the soup, they just pour the sea water and mix with the regular water so it makes it salty, so they don't have to buy us salt at all, and then just cut off some vegetable which is like lettuce, and they just feed us for eight months. At the end of it, I was almost death because I don't have any meat, or I don't have any energy to walk. I have to keep myself alive, so every time I go outside ... We have a community service, and every 7 AM through to 7 PM, we go outside and help people, like [inaudible 00:16:53] working. Every time I go out, I was always looking for something to eat, even grass, because inside the prison there is nothing at all. So if you go outside, you are just always looking for something, like even once pieces of rice. I was looking for that. Catching a rat. It's going to be really lucky if you are catching a rat, so you can eat it. But there is always higher ranked prisoners, they're going to take it from us, and they are going to eat it by themselves. Also in North Korean prison, the labor camp, if you have family that got your back, so let's say, your family comes to you every once in a week with the food, you are going to be okay because you are eating home meal. But if you don't have any family, and you are just being by yourself in the prison, in the labor camp, basically, you are going to die because they are feeding you 50 corn kernels per meals.

Benjamin: And your brother-in-law, or not your brother-in-law

Charles: Sister-in-law

Benjamin: Your sister-in-law and your brother didn't come?

Charles: Well, they didn't even know I was get caught, and they didn't even know because the government didn't even notify them. Anyways, so after eight months, I was almost died, and then my hometown police officer come to pick me up at the labor camp, and then he brought me back to my hometown.

Benjamin: Why after eight months does the hometown police officer come to get you?

Charles: Because I was in no condition to work anymore. I was going to die today or tomorrow, so the boss of the labor camp saying-

Benjamin: You had given everything you could to work.

Charles: I couldn't even walk because I was too skinny, and I didn't have any energy to work at all. And then they notified my hometown police officer to come to pick me up, and then after eight months, he finally arrived and picked me up. Then I went to my hometown, but I had nobody in the hometown. I only have the birth certificates. That one was only named in there and, after my mom died, I'm, "Who cares about the paper works?" I have to go by myself and it's North Korea who cares. I just left without any notifying governments, so they didn't move the birth certificates or addresses, so my address was still in North Korean, which is [Foreign 00:19:07] but one thing was, my father's sister and brother was still in there, and the North Korean government, the police officer, found out that I had a blood related, and they found them and notified them. So they tell my uncle and auntie, "Your nephew is in jail. You better pick them up, or we are going to give you trouble." Then they finally come to pick me up, my aunt and uncle.

Benjamin: We are going to pause for a quick moment to recap what Charles just told us. The key points from this segment are that Charles was deported back to North Korea where he was held at a questioning facility. He was interrogated in an office instead of the traditional torturing room where, as part of his questioning, he was beaten, but not as severely as the other, older prisoners who were captured. Charles was then transferred to a labor prison where he worked for eight months without adequate nourishment. Eventually, the lack of food left Charles incapable of working, so he was released to a representative from his hometown. He was then forced to live with his aunt and uncle.

 

This recap was brought to you by my company, Benjshap LLC. I am a brand development and marketing consultant, so if you need help identifying, reaching, and monetizing, your customers, I work with a network of boutique consultants who can help you overcome your business's biggest obstacles. If you're in the market for a business consultant, visit benjshap.com or email us at mail@benjshap.com for more information. Okay, let's get back to Charles.

 

Charles:

After I was in the hometown jail for a month to do the paperworks ... because if I was 18 years old, then they are going to sentence me to go and working another four years in a labor camp, but since I was a child, I was lucky. They says, "Okay, don't do it again. We are going to forgive you, but just don't do it again." I already also served as a prisoner in labor camp for eight months already, if I go to another four year, I could die. Then I got out, and I was living with my auntie and uncle for three months, and they're really poor, too. They couldn't be responsible because it was a really small town, and they don't have [inaudible 00:21:18] too.

 

Benjamin:

Was this the town that your mother-

 

Charles:

Died.

 

Benjamin:

Right, this is the small town your grandfather was moved to after he played the song?

 

Charles:

Yes, that is correct. Then from there, my aunt sent me to my brother's house again, which is [Foreign 00:21:37].

 

Benjamin:

Big town.

 

Charles:

It was 2010, and when I got to my brother's house, it was life was okay, too. He had a farm, and while I was gone, he bought a machine that prints the shoes, the bottom parts, and he sell them and make money. It's like let's say a small business, but doing with the governments, and then sharing the profits. And they were doing really okay with the machine, and then as soon as I got there in 2010, currency exchanged.

 

Benjamin:

Explain to me why the currency exchange is important?

 

Charles:

So, in North Korea, if we turn in $10,000, they are going to give us $100 back. By that time, we can buy two kilograms of rice with $10,000, and the currency is really high, and they are cutting back. They have the money, but they don't have the product or demands. They don't have the demands. So what Kim Jong-il really wanted to do is cutting down money. It's going to make everything better, but it didn't because there was not enough product. Also what happened was, when they did the currency exchange, every governments knew that it was going to happen, so let's say me, I told my friend, "It's going to be a currency exchange is tomorrow, so you better use all your money, or it's going to be nothing the next day." So they went out in [Foreign 00:22:53] market and buy everything with their money, even gold, and rice, or [inaudible 00:23:03] golds, and some people sell their house, too, to for that.

 

Let's say we are really poor, we didn't have anything, but some people just came in, "I really want to buy your house. I love your house. I'm going to give you $1 Million. Do you want it or not?" Do I want it? Definitely. Then the very next day, currency exchanged. So many people lost their house, even their farms. All their lives works, it's gone.

 

Benjamin:

So the government devalued the currency to try to make it so the goods were more valuable that were for sale?

 

Charles:

Yes, so goods are more valuable, yes.

 

Benjamin:

But there were enough people that knew that the currency was going to be devalued, so they bought all the goods and everybody that kept the money ended up-

 

Charles:

It ended up just water. It's just paper. There's no use.

 

Benjamin:

They got screwed?

 

Charles:

They got screwed. Yes, exactly. Screwed. So in my neighbor there was a few people suicide, a few families suicide, because there is no reason to live. They lost all of it. Same as my brothers too. He sold his machine for a few hundred thousand dollars for North Korean money, because he is so big, he thought he could do more better than that. But the next day, currency happened, so we turned $100,000, $200,000, $300,000 in and we got $4,000 or $5,000 back. By that time, the rice was $5. It used to be $5,000 but it cut back to $5, and the government told us, "Don't use your money. Later on, it's going to be a cent or a few quarters later on, so don't use it. Just keep it until we say use it." And some people really kept it and some people like, "Eh, screw it. I'm going to buy things." They all bought something, but my brother, he is really honest, they trust the government and they has $5,000. Two months later, it got cut back up, which is so rice was $5 today. Tomorrow, it's going to be $50. The next day it keeps rising, and then finally, like three or four months later, it cut back again. My brother lost everything, and he's like, "You know what, you're 15 years old now. You have to provide yourself," and he kicked me out from the house.

 

Benjamin:

Do you have a good relationship with your brother? Was he upset with you or was it the only option? I guess, are you mad at your brother?

 

Charles:

Yeah, I do. Very much. So there is another reason my mother died, because my brother was the breach between my mom and my father. My father was in China and my mom in North Korea, and my mom cannot cross the border without a passport, but my brother could. He had a passport. Then my mother wrote a letter to my father. Also my father wrote a letter to my mom, but at the middle he never gave it to each other, and who knows, my father might send help to my mom, but my brother had really mad feeling to my mom when he were younger, so maybe he's saying, "I'm doing revenge. It's my time," and then he just let her die. Who knows? I'm thinking that right now because I'm thinking about time. This is what could be happened.

 

Benjamin:

So it seems like you're life at your brother's house was good, relative to some of the other places you were in North Korea for the most part, but you didn't have a great relationship with him?

 

Charles:

I'd say mostly no, but I was happy because I was ... I could eat fully. That was the only reason that I was happy.

 

Benjamin:

We're going to take a moment to go over some of the main points that Charles just brought up. The key takeaways from this segment are that, after being released from prison, Charles was sent from his hometown to live with his brother-in-law in the suburb of the capital city. Charles lived comfortably with his brother-in-law until the North Korean government implemented a currency exchange which decreased the purchasing power for most non-government officials. As a result of the currency exchange, and the subsequent crash of the North Korean economy, Charles's brother was unable to support Charles, so he was then once again abandoned by his family.

 

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Charles:

So he sent me the coal mine, at that time. So in 2010, October, it was around my birthday. During that time ... So I mentioned the rich people, the government people, they spent all there money, so they got the golds. Then later on, where some people bought US currency, US Dollars, and they sell us back as a higher currency as North Korean. They bought the coal mine from the governments, and they are sharing the profits, so the government has something. They are selling coals to China. They are selling everythings to China. I really hope that some day it's going to be North Korea and South Korea combined together as soon as possible, because sooner or later, North Korea is going to sell everything to China. So at the end of it North Korea would have nothing. Anyways, I was working in a coal mine for almost one and a half year.

 

Benjamin:

Tell me why you were working at the coal mine.

 

Charles:

The reason why I had to go work in the coal mine is because my brother was so poor, too. So he had two kids and a wife and himself, so four of them in the house. In North Korea, four family is really big. Most of them have three or two, but my brother had four, so including me is five, so he cannot even carry his family. He told me, "I cannot be responsible for you at all, so just get out there. You are an adult now, responsible for yourself." That's why I had to go work in the coal mine.

 

Benjamin:

There were no other jobs?

 

Charles:

In North Korea there is no other options.

 

Benjamin:

Okay, sorry, if that's a stupid question, I just-

 

Charles:

Well, it's all right because you don't know about North Korea. But there is the only option is work in the coal mine or stealing, being homeless kid. I have some few friends same as like my situation, they was kicked out from the house, and we all working at the coal mine for one and a half year. Anyways, if you are working in a coal mine in North Korea, you won't get paid as a money currency. They are only going to give you rice per month, like 30 kg of rice per month, and they are going to feed you three times a day, three meals a day, and they are going to let you sleep.

 

Benjamin:

Tell me how much 30 kg of rice is in terms of how many servings. Is that just enough food for one month?

 

Charles:

Yeah, just really okay for a month. It's not above. It's for myself. A lot of people in North Korea, they're risking their lives for 30 kg of rice because they think it's worth it. They cannot earn with another way. It's the only option. So while I was working in a coal mine for one and a half years, I lost many friends because there is no safety guarantees. And we'd go into almost two miles up the mountain and we make the way for the hand cart to go into the coal mine. Then we dig the coals. Then we bring them into the big plastic bags, like really, really, big bag. Then we'd carry them from ... because in the coal mine, we cannot go straight. We have to go up and down because there's ... We have to find where's the coal there. So we have to carry out the coal and put it in hand cart and then take them out. There is no helmets. All they give us is really, really, really dark flashlights. One flashlights, and then there is no electronical machines. It's done by all hands, hand tools. It is really dangerous, too. Every time, there is rock falling from next to me, or the hand carts is crashing each other and explodes and people are getting their arms cutting, legs cutting.

 

I lost a lot of friends over there. I already taste the freedom in China when I was 14, and I can never ever throw that away. Some day if I have a chance, I will go to China again. I always keep telling myself, "I'm going to get out of here. I'm going to make it. It's not worth it. Some day, I'm going to die. The human is born to be dead and, rather dying like this by accident in the coal mine, I'll just go to China and I'm just going to eat a one meal. I'm just going to eat fully once again and I'm going to live my life. Then I'm going to die."

 

So around one year and six months I got the chance to escape the coal mine.

 

Benjamin:

Tell me why your escaping the coal mine as opposed to just free to leave.

 

Charles:

So it's not free to leave. If you want to leave middle of the month, you have to give them the rice back, like 30 kg of rice back, or either you finish working in a coal mine for another month. Because when you start working, they are going to pay you 30 kg of rice, so I didn't even work for one month, but they are going to pay you for 30 kg of rice, because you have to eat. So if I just tell them I am going to leave, then the option is either you pay them, or they are going to beat you to death. That's why I have to escape.

 

I finally escaped, one and a half years, and I came back to my brother's house and I tell him, "Please, I'm too scared. I can't." Because I was only like 16 1/2 and I can't work in a coal mine. I'm too scared and frightened by the accidents. I'm going to die. And he's like ... All the time my brother wasn't home. My brother was in China, and my sister-in-law told me, "Your brother isn't counting you as your brother. He abandons you. So don't ever come back again." My sister-in-law, I don't know why she's mad at me, but for some reason she doesn't wanted to let me in, because I'm guessing, I have a bad background. So, let's say, I got caught in China, and I got thrown in the jail, and I served in a labor camp, and it's a bad image for them, so they don't want to let me in, so they kicked me out.

 

Benjamin:

Here it's called an ex-con. You're an ex-convict.

 

Charles:

Ex-convict?

 

Benjamin:

Once you're conflicted of a crime, when you're let go, you're an ex-convict, and a lot of the time, people think that ex-convicts are dangerous, and so they don't give them a fair chance. So you were an ex-convict.

 

Charles:

Yeah, I was an ex-convict and my sister-in-law wouldn't let me in, so what I'm going to do? I can't even go back to coal mine. The only option is, if I go there, they're going to beat the shit out of me, or I have to pay 30 kg of rice, or I have to continue working for them, but I don't want to. I don't want to end my life like that. So I was being homeless for three months. It was May, spring. There was flowers coming up and people go and farming, so it was warm too, so you know what? Why not? I'm going to be homeless until my brother come back. Then I got some crew. I got some [inaudible 00:34:01]

 

Benjamin:

You got some what?

 

Charles:

I say a few other kids, a few other homeless kids.

 

Benjamin:

Oh, you had a crew?

 

Charles:

I had a crew.

 

Benjamin:

Your buddies?

 

Charles:

My buddies. My thief buddies. Well, I cannot even survive by myself, we have to have a team. If you want to steal something, you have to play as a team. So I had three friends that I knew from my brother's neighborhood, and they are like, "Okay, we are going to survive together." And then we were being each other three months, and then one day, one fateful day, there was a train. So there was on a hill ... It was around 2 PM. It was the most hottest day of the August. So it has rained in North Korea. It's the rain season in August in North Korea, and it's really sticky, raining, but that day it was sunny, really sunny, which really feels good too. Then I was laying down on a hill, then I looked down. There's a train, and "Oh, I'm going to get the hell out of here. Why am I staying here?" Either being a homeless, my brother won't come back, and even if he come back, according to what my sister-in-law says, he abandons me and he doesn't even care about me anymore, so why should I stay here? I'm going to a different town. I'm going to get out of here.

 

Benjamin:

Okay, we're going to stop here for the day. I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Long Road Home. Before we say goodbye, there's a few people we'd like to thank. Thank you to [Arion Toma 00:35:19] who helps us with our public relations. Thank you to [Pamela Stupus 00:35:22] our editor. A few organizations that have helped us out along the way. I'd like to say thank you to Lift-INK, Amnesty International, Helping Hands, North Korea Liberty, and North Korea All, who are groups that supported us in creating and sharing this podcast. We hope you check in for our next podcast where we'll here how Charles escaped from North Korea and what he's doing today. We look forward to talking with you again soon. Thanks for listening.

 

 

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