- I knew that if I was caught, I'll be killed.
I was born to a Chinese father and North Korean mother.
But when I was five, my father abandoned us
and left to China and never returned.
I lost my mother six years later from starvation.
So I ended up living with my aunt
until my father sent my step-brother to take me to China.
So I ended up in my father's place in China in 2008.
Life in China was so much better.
I was so happy because I was living my life in freedom.
But the happiness that I felt in China was only temporary
because Chinese government didn't recognize
North Koreans as refugees
and they deported back us to North Korea.
The North Korean government wanted me to confess
that I was trying to defect to South Korea,
but the truth was I went to China to find my father.
I had no desire to defect and begged them to understand.
I didn't confess, and after being for weeks,
they sent me to labor camp.
I was only 15.
In the labor camp, I was only allowed to eat
150 kernels of corn a day.
One morning, we were marching in our rows, our work site,
and I saw a dry vomit on the road.
I was so hungry that I got on my hands and knees
and began picking the rice out of the vomited rice.
I didn't stop eating the vomited rice
until the beating from the guards were too unbearable.
Eight months later, I was finally released
because I couldn't even stand up or even lift my arm.
After spending months trying to regain my strength,
I needed to find a job.
I began working in a coal mine
where I was paid only in rice.
Cave-ins were common, and I saw other boys
lose their arms and legs or else they were smashed
into the rocks.
And I watched my friend die
when the coal cart fell off the track and crushed him.
I worked in the mine about a year
and I realized it was my time
to try to escape North Korea again.
I knew how hard escaping North Korea would be
without any money or food.
And I knew that if I was caught, I will be killed.
But those risks overweighted working in the dark coal mine
every day until it was my turn to lose a limb or die.
One morning, instead of entering the mine,
I walked up the path and began running.
I spent the next three months hiding from the police
and waiting for an opportunity
to travel to the border town.
On a humid day in August, I was lying down on a hillside,
and in the distance, I saw a train come to stop
and I realized the train was going to the border town,
and as the passengers boarded again, I joined the line.
And the guard would ask for my papers and documents
and I lied that my mother had them
and that she was already on the train.
He nodded and I headed
straight for the train bathroom to hide.
I spent the next two days hiding from the police.
I was almost at the border town
when the hands of a guard grabbed the back of my neck
and dragged me to a holding cell on the train.
I thought about how terrible the labor camp had been,
the long days of manual labor,
sleepless nights that spent memorizing the rules,
and the constant feelings of hunger.
I refused to let that happen again.
Once the train began to slow down for the next stop,
I saw a window was unlocked so I pushed it open
and squeezed out of the small opening.
I jumped off the moving train and rolled into a ditch
and began sprinting for some nearby trees.
I ran for hours, illegally boarded a second train,
and two days later, I finally made it to the border town.
I walked into the river that divides North Korea and China
and I hid in the tall grass for eight hours
waiting for the darkness.
When I finally thought it was safe,
I quietly waded into the water.
In the middle of the river, I slipped on a rock
and let out a scream.
Immediately, a floodlight was on my back
and I heard a guard screaming at me.
He said that he would shoot me if I didn't turn back.
I knew that I was dead either way.
Either he would shoot me or I would obey
and return to shore, only to be shipped off to labor camp.
I decided not to turn back.
Each step took me further away from North Korea
and closer to my dream of freedom.
And five minutes later, I was dripping wet,
but finally back in China.
I walked in China for three days
until somebody found me collapsed in the middle of a road.
I was hungry and I was dehydrated and I was exhausted.
When the man that found me
realized that I was from North Korea,
he helped me to make a contact with the people
who helped me to come to Southeast Asia
where I was processed to come to the United States.
I remember looking out the window
once the plane began to land in California.
I've never dreamed of being on a plane
or even coming to America.
And as I step off the plane, I felt this strange feeling
that I've never known before.
I was finally safe and I didn't need to hide anymore.
And I came to America five years ago,
and in that time, I have learned English,
graduate from high school, worked as a sushi chef.
My life in America has not been easy,
but this is land of opportunity,
and I know that if I work hard, I can achieve my dreams.
And today, I stand here as the exception.
For every story about a North Korean like mine,
thousands of others end in tragedy.
And sometimes, I wonder why it was me.
Why was I the one that survived in the labor camp
and my cellmates starved to death?
And why did the coal cart fall off
the other side of the rails,
crushing my friend instead of me?
And why did I get a chance to jump off the train
and those two other boys didn't?
I struggled with this questions for a long time.
And the small gift that I can give
to those that are not here today is to share my story.