Episode 1 : Charles Ryu - Growing up in North Korea

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.

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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 the first episode of this season, Charles tells us about what life is like in North Korea, why he was abandoned by his family background, and how he attempted to escape (for the first time). Charles tells us his first-hand experience growing up in the dictatorship. It is a story of courage, determination, and at times sheer luck!  

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


Benjamin Shapiro: Hello listeners and thanks for checking out this podcast. My name is Ben Shapiro and welcome to the first ever episode of A Long Road Home. Before we get started, I want to talk for second about my purpose for creating this podcast. A Long Road Home is going to be series of real-world stories about people who work in the on-demand economy. If you're anything like me, you've probably used your phone to get help from people that you've never met before through services like Lyft, Uber, Instacart, Rinse, there's a ton of them out there. These types of businesses make it easy for us to get help and increase the number of strangers that we interact with. My goal for this podcast is to tell you some of the amazing stories of the people behind the apps that you and I use every day. As this is the first episode of our first season of our podcast, we have what I think is a very interesting and special guest for you. Charles Ryu who now goes by Charles is a refugee from North Korea. Against all odds he survived being abandoned by his family, becoming a prisoner to the North Korean government, and being an indentured slave in a coal mine, to daringly escape from North Korean when he was 17. He now lives in San Jose, California where he drives for Lyft and study Software Engineering. Considering everything that he's been through in his life, I find his story absolutely fascinating and I couldn't be more excited to bring it to you. Before we get into Charles' story, he and I both wanted to talk a little bit about what life is like in North Korea and how that's so different than the United States, specifically how they are able to control the people that live in North Korea. Charles?
Charles Ryu: Yes.
Benjamin Shapiro: Tell me what life is like in North Korea and how that's different than what life is like here.
Charles Ryu: I say simply North Korea is beautiful. It is, North Korea itself, water is good, air is good. My home town is beautiful and so many good memories in there. The only thing I really don't like is, and only thing that I have really hurt experience is the government. What they do is basically brainwash us in school, so let's say, kindergarten through entire your life. They're going to make you believe that they are the god and they're going to make you do whatever they want to do. For example, in North Korea, if you question any of those leadership, as Kim Jong-un or Kim Il-sung, if you question why do we have starving and the very next day you're going to be executed because you are question the wrong leadership or questioning the greatest leader, supreme leader in the world. Second thing, they are using the government power to control the people. If you don't do what they tell you to do, then they're going to say or they're going to put you in a labor camp. In North Korean rule, we have to go to work 7 am through 7 pm everyday, don't miss any work. If you don't have a job, then you're in a labor camp. You have to go to labor camp for six months, eight months, a year. At some point, men can have only one hairstyle and you cannot have long hair or you cannot wear clothes that has English letter on it. If you do that also you will go to labor camps for six months, eight months. Also at some point, women are not allowed to ride a bicycle because they are saying that it doesn't look really good on women. That's the only thing they don't want the women to ride a bicycle. North Korean government has so much power and North Korean government is forcing them to believe that. North Korean people are very used to it.
Benjamin Shapiro: How does the government control the people so successfully?
Charles Ryu: It is all about the medias. North Korea has only one channel, which is educational broadcasting.
Benjamin Shapiro: Television?
Charles Ryu: Yes, television. They have only one channel. In North Korean law, so the television, so let's say, I'm assuming in '60s we have just non-color TV and we turn the channels around, like this, and there's 12 channels in it. North Korean governments take out those 11 channels and put only one channel so they can watch only one channel. Also they have a radio that has only one line radio. 5:30 am to 10 pm, we have to listen to the songs always talking about Kim Il-sung andKim Jong-nu's life and how they are great, which is totally progandas. 5 pm to 10 pm, Monday through Saturday, and the TV channel just covers how Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-nu's life is great. I mean, how they've done great things for us. Also they are playing movie too. They have a movie, but it's all about educational broadcasting, so which is how do we praise the lord, praise Kim Jong-un, Kim Il-sung. On a Sunday, especially on a Sunday, they are playing TVs, they are playing TVs during the daytime too, but it's always, always it's the songs and everything else it's about the Kim's family. Education. Educations are all related to Kim Il-sungs and Math in North Korean language and art and musics and drawings, it has to be related to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-un. That's how they successfully brainwash the North Koreans. Because from when they're born they put them in a kindergarten and they teach them as how North Korean government is doing great. People are believing that and they are telling us if Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-un are not around us, America and South Korean is going to make us their slaves, and we have to be strong and we have to make weapons, and even we are starving for now, if we make the weapons, then we're going to be great, and we are number in the world. People are truly believing that because they are listening to that since they are young. It's been already hundred years they've been over Kim's family, right? People are believing. That's how they successfully brainwash and controlling the North Korean.
Benjamin Shapiro: What are the consequences for someone that doesn't believe in North Korea's propaganda?
Charles Ryu: Wow. That is a really good question. Okay. If somebody doesn't believe that Kim Il-sung is going to be ... he's not the supreme leader, then you will be gone in one night.
Benjamin Shapiro: What do you mean gone?
Charles Ryu: You'll be dead. You'll be dead in one night. Because North Korean government are so afraid of people turning their back on the government, so they are going to come to your house. They are going to find you somehow with everyone they got. Come to your house and kill you. Or either they're going to send you to, it's called the prison, it is really, really dangerous prison. They're going to put you in a prison for three generations. Let's say, if I don't believe in Kim Jong-un, then they're going to put me in a prison, my mother and my grandmother in a prison, all my three generations. Also, I really want to mention what is changing in North Korea. I really want to mention that is foreign media. It is changing in North Korean right now because in my generations they all watched South Korean dramas and American movies too. When I was in North Korea, I watched the foreign medias too. When I watched that it is changing my mind and it is making me question the leaders.
Benjamin Shapiro: What foreign medias did you watch?
Charles Ryu: I watched Bad Boys II, American ... I know, but you guys-
Benjamin Shapiro: I loved that movie.
Charles Ryu: I know. It is the greatest movie ever. Anyways ... and [inaudible 00:09:07], I watched it quite a lot in North Korea because, I told in you in my generations, they watched all foreign medias but they can't question them because they are afraid of dying. But who are truly not believing North Koreans, they leave North Korea. It's the option they have. Either die or die trying to get out of North Korean. When I watched those movies, it makes me question them, right? Okay, so we are the greatest, but we are starving. In this movie, they are living their life like a king and then can do whatever they want. Why can't we do that, right? If I ask them, I'm going to die and my family is going to die.
Benjamin Shapiro: Somehow Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are making a difference in North Korea.
Charles Ryu: Yes.
Benjamin Shapiro: Awesome.
Charles Ryu: Yeah. That was the main thing that North Korea is successfully controlling the North Korean civilian. It is educational broadcasting and brainwash them.
Benjamin Shapiro: Let's take a quick break to recap what we've heard so far. The key things to remember are: one, the North Korean government is positioned to be a god-like figure; two, the government controls people through education system, media, and fear; three, there are severe repercussions for questioning the government leadership, which include deportation, labor camps, execution, or the imprisonment of your family; and four, consuming and promoting foreign media is a punishable crime. 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 1099 contractors, Pro-Tier will create a business license for you that will save you thousands by allowing you to allocate expenses like gas and your cellphone 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 P-R-O dash I-I-E-R and use promo code benjshap for 50% off your first year of service. Pro-Tier. Okay. Let's get back to Charles. Now tell me about your story.
Charles Ryu: I'll talk about my mother's side first. My grandfather, my mother side grandfather, he was a musician. He played instruments to the government. My grandmother, she was really well educated. She went to college in Japan and she spoke five languages and she worked as Chinese translator between North Korean government and Chinese government. My mother side family had three siblings, which is my mom, my mom is the youngest, and there's two sisters above her. All of them was musicians too. They all play instruments. My mother is violinist, my auntie was cellist, the middle one, I don't know what she does, but yes, she still plays something. When she was around age 20, my grandfather, he made a mistake, which is playing a foreign music to the government. If you do that, you'll be in big trouble because North Korean government is trying to hide everything from the foreign culture. My grandfather played his music at the government conference and then government find out and they say, "Okay, you're not North Korean minded. Because you play a song, you are no longer allowed to leave here in capital city of Pyongyang."
Benjamin Shapiro: Do you know what the song was?
Charles Ryu: I'm assuming it was probably like Beethoven or just playing a song to make other people feel better. It's not something about North Korean, it's foreign music.
Benjamin Shapiro: When your grandfather played this song, was it an active rebellion?
Charles Ryu: That time it was not allowed. North Korea is really strict about the music and drama and videos.
Benjamin Shapiro: Tell us what are the repercussions of moving from the main town and to a suburb.
Charles Ryu: Because the closer you live to the Pyongyang City it is the better because Pyongyang City has 24-hour electricity and it also has a water system. The bigger city you live in is the more you live because more electricity and waters and better economy. For my grandfather's family and my mother's family, it's really bad because there is no government service anymore. Before the government provides, let's say, rice every holidays there's meat, something to eat, some money to buy clothes, but none of that apply to us anymore because he's a criminal. From the stresses, my grandfather got a stroke so he could not use his both legs. He just lay on the bed 24-7. My mother keep changing his diapers.
Benjamin Shapiro: Tell me about what your mother's life was like and what you know about her.
Charles Ryu: Well, I'm assuming that my mother lives her life really freely because Pyongyang City was really free. Pyongyang capital is rich town so she was really passionate about it and she's passionate actress. When she moved to town, it's like hell for her because there's nothing to do in that town. There's really small vendors, no fun thing, and now you're starving. You don't get to do actress anymore. I'm assuming she was really depressed and she was really trying to make her way out.
Benjamin Shapiro: Did she ever talk to you about what life was like being an actress?
Charles Ryu: No, but I saw all her pictures. Most North Korean pictures, it has no color in it, just like black and white, but when I was young, like seven or eight, when I saw that, there's a color in it, so I could tell it's really like, "Oh my God." She never talked about what her life was like when she lived in Pyongyang because, I don't know, every time she talked about it, I think it makes her feel bad. She said the most thing that make you sad is the most thing that used to make you happy. I think she doesn't want to talk about. But I saw a lot of pictures, I saw a lot like a wealthy partying pictures.
Benjamin Shapiro: Now tell me about the background of your father's family.
Charles Ryu: I don't know a lot about my father's family side because my mother's side family and father's side family, they hated each other, so I don't get any chance to visit. What I know about my father's side family is my grandfather is a Chinese soldier. When there was a Korean war he came out to help North Korean and he stayed in North Korea. During that time, after the war, the president of North Korea, which is Kim Il-sung, gave the Chinese two options, either you stay or either you return to China. The ones who stayed at North Korea, he gave them citizenship.
Benjamin Shapiro: Do you know which war this was or when it happened?
Charles Ryu: Yeah, 1953 Korean War, the North is trying to take over the South. America got the South Korean back and China and Russia got the North Korean back.
Benjamin Shapiro: The war ends and he's granted dual citizenship, then what happens?
Charles Ryu: Yeah. Then he gets the citizenship and then he met my grandmother. My grandfather never spoke Korean language. When I was young I visited him once or twice, he couldn't still speak North Korean. Somehow he met my grandmother and they married.
Benjamin Shapiro: Was she Korean?
Charles Ryu: Yeah. She was fully North Korean. She doesn't speak any Chinese. My grandfather doesn't speak any North Korean. I don't know how they met, but may be a sign language or something like love language probably.
Benjamin Shapiro: Yeah.
Charles Ryu: Then they met and they have my father. During that time, if you are born under the Chinese people, then you'll become automatically Chinese because your blood is Chinese. Right? North Korean President Kim Il-sung gave them North Korean citizenship, but at the same time gave them passport and you have also options to be Chinese or either North Korean.
Benjamin Shapiro: You have to choose your nationality.
Charles Ryu: Yeah. When he born, he born as North Korean, but after he's turned 18 he can choose if you want, we can give you a Chinese citizenship, and if you don't want, it's fine.
Benjamin Shapiro: Your father gets to decide whether he's Chinese or North Korean when he's 18?
Charles Ryu: Yes. There isn't a lot I know about my father's family side.
Benjamin Shapiro: Your parents met in sort of a non conventional way.
Charles Ryu: Yes.
Benjamin Shapiro: Tell us about the way that their relationship started and what was that like.
Charles Ryu: Well, during that time my father met my mother, he already had family and he already had four children. Also my mother, she was really young. I guess she's around 26 or 27. After she got kicked out from the Pyongyang City and she was living a life like hell for a couple of years she wanted to make her way out. She's marrying a guy she never met before but met him one day through my auntie's introduction.
Benjamin Shapiro: Let me ask you a question about that. Is an arranged marriage something that's common?
Charles Ryu: Yeah, it's really common. In North Korean culture, you have to marry what your parents told you to marry, also like your sisters. It is really common.
Benjamin Shapiro: Okay. You said that your mother was like 26, which is young. When did people normally get married in North Korea?
Charles Ryu: Officially, marry is around like 30 years old.
Benjamin Shapiro: Really?
Charles Ryu: Yeah, officially marrying, 27, 28, 29, 30.
Benjamin Shapiro: Do you have a sense of why they are getting married later?
Charles Ryu: In North Korea, really old days, they're getting married when they are five or 10. In my understanding, it is not really polite to have a girl around your arms and you know comes to house and then you're still like 20. What are you doing? It is not really polite.
Benjamin Shapiro: Right.
Charles Ryu: Okay. So I'm old enough to have a wife and I'm old enough to carry a family.
Benjamin Shapiro: Not a lot of dating?
Charles Ryu: There is not a lot of dating. Yeah. It is like, okay, you and me, yeah, we met and now we get married.
Benjamin Shapiro: Literally, your mother got married one day to a guy that your aunt introduced her to.
Charles Ryu: Yeah. Also he was a musician. He was a ...
Benjamin Shapiro: A composer?
Charles Ryu: Composer, yes. A composer. He was in a North Korean college, which is he's also kind of high class. Well, in my understanding she wanted her old life back. Right?
Benjamin Shapiro: Right.
Charles Ryu: She thought if I live with him, I could have hope about leaving the old family. Then she found out that he was abuser. He was abusing my mom. She had one child with him so he's like, for me, his brother, we have same mother and different father. She had him and then she escape from him because he's really abusing. At night time he comes home drunk and then he hit her every time. She was really paranoid. She come back to the small town where my grand families lives. During that time my father already had family, but somehow she met my mother and just like one day he fell in love with my mom.
Benjamin Shapiro: Hang on a second. Before you go on there, we've talked about this before and there's this magical meeting of your mother and your father.
Charles Ryu: Yes.
Benjamin Shapiro: One day they meet and they fall in love. Do you know anything about where they met or how they met or anything about that story?
Charles Ryu: Yeah. I'm assuming where my father and mother met is North Korean traditional black market. I know about a club in United States in freedom here, like people go there and meet people. Right? Same as North Korea, traditional black market is a place where you meet people and where you find things, it's like everything.
Benjamin Shapiro: Right. It's the social center of the community?
Charles Ryu: Yes. Yeah. I'm assuming they met there because I lived with my auntie, she mentioned about it. So yeah, I'm assuming they met at traditional black market.
Benjamin Shapiro: Was your dad's family affluent?
Charles Ryu: Yes.
Benjamin Shapiro: What were their life like?
Charles Ryu: He lived in a small town and his father was Chinese and he was Chinese. But they weren't upper class. They're really poor. They're working in a government's factory, their paper factory. My auntie and my uncles, they're all working at government's factories and government's farm. Even if you work for the government during that time you don't get anything from it because, 1994, during when I was born, the famine happened, 3.5 million death starvation. You don't get anything from governments. My father was low class because he doesn't get anything from government. They are too busy taking care of themselves.
Benjamin Shapiro: Let's get back to the year, your mother and father, they're in the traditional black market and where you left off was they have this meeting. They meet, what happens?
Charles Ryu: Well, here's what I understand, so my father had affair, which is in North Korea is very common. We meet each other that day and it's fine, let's go. They found out, oh, so my father had affair with my mom because she was really pretty and they decided to live together without marrying each other. My father divorced his first wife. Well, it's not really divorce because divorce officially let's kick her out of the house. "Okay. You leave your children here, just get out. Just go wherever you want." My mother lived with my father. Then maybe a few years, maybe two years, I was born.
Benjamin Shapiro: Let's take a quick second to summarize what we know about Charles' family. Charles mother's family was a group of musicians who were deported from the capital for playing foreign music. Charles' mother was a musician and an actress who married an abusive man to escape the small town she was deported to. Charles' grandfather was a Chinese soldier who married a woman in North Korea. Charles' father was half Chinese, he was granted the right to go between China and North Korea. Charles' father originally had a family of four before meeting Charles' mother. Charles was born out of wedlock as the result of his parents having an affair. This recap was brought to you by my company, Benjshap LLC. Benjshap LLC is a marketing consulting practice that uses a three-step brand development process to help companies identify, reach, and monetize their most profitable customer. If you're a CEO, head of marketing or sales, and you need help reaching your customers, Benjshap LLC will create the marketing strategy that's right for your business. Are you ready to give your brand a voice? Visit benjshap.com or email us at mail@benjshap.com for more information.
Charles Ryu: When I was born in 1994, there was a president in North Korean, Kim Il-sun, he died, he passed away. North Korea people called it the famine, North Korean famine, and every economy is down and every factory couldn't work because they're all too sad to work. Everyone is sitting down at house crying. No one is there to run the factory.
Benjamin Shapiro: Kim Il-sung was popular?
Charles Ryu: He's like a god to us during that time.
Benjamin Shapiro: I'm assuming before the famine, people would have food.
Charles Ryu: People were really, they're very okay. Every once in a while they have meat. Every once in a while they go out to drink. Every once in a while they go to restaurant, something like that. Just like a normal life. After Kim Il-sung died then everything crashes. People were too sad to work, so no factories, no farming. There's a lot of money, but there's no product and there's no food to buy. There was 3.5 million death starvation and that was really hard. Even for my family, that was really hard too because my father had five children, including me, and mother and himself, so it's like seven of them. He's working in a small, really small government factory driving a truck, he goes to mountain and grab the wood and come back, but he doesn't get really well paid. My father's side family had a little farm at their backyard so they all they could eat is the foods from the farm. My family was struggling for a few years. In 1998, when I was five, my father decided to be a Chinese.
Benjamin Shapiro: Is he saying, "I'm not North Korean, I'm Chinese," or is he saying, "I'm going to China."?
Charles Ryu: "I'm going to China."
Benjamin Shapiro: Okay.
Charles Ryu: He says, "You know what? I'm done." He left China. He took all four of his children with him, but not me and my mother. She had a heart trouble. She couldn't really walk far and she had a hard time working. She's like basically our patient. When my father left he also leave us a lot of debts too. Basically, he borrowed money from the neighbors and say, "Hey, you know what, I'm going to China. I'll buy some products and I'm going to come back and I'm going to sell that. I'm going to make money double and I'll pay you double."
Benjamin Shapiro: Your dad makes the decision that he can't support his family in North Korea and he decides that he's leaving for China. He goes to the neighbors and says, "Give me all the money."?
Charles Ryu: Well, yeah. "Borrow me money you have. I can make it back because I'm a Chinese." Right? He showed the passport. "If I go to China and buy the products with your money and come back and I'll sell that products and I'm going to make more money." Then what he did with the money is he borrowed that money and then he buys a drug opium and he brings to China. Because during that time in North Korea, opium wasn't that big drug, opium was just like a medication. Even the children eat the seeds of opium, just cut inside there's a lot of seeds. We eat for like food. He buys the opium and he brings to China. He gets caught at the border and he got throw in the jail.
Benjamin Shapiro: He got to Chinese jail or North Korean jail?
Charles Ryu: Chinese prison. The consequences of the money that he borrowed from the neighbors is all on my mother and he borrowed that money with my mother's side family's name. Before he leave, like, "Okay. I have children here. I have a wife here. I'll be back." One day the debt collectors come to our house and knock to our house everyday, "Where's my money? I need my money back." It's time he should be arrived time but he's not here. Later and later then come to our house and break things or take our things. They hospitalized my mom, eventually they took our house too. With that option, we have now options to just living in the street or either going back to my grandmother's house. She decided to go back to her mother's side family. Then we got to her house when I was seven. I lived with my grandmother from seven to 11. When I lived with my grandmother, my mother just always go outside. She never home because she was trying to find my father. She was trying to make a contact with him, trying to get some help from him. But he's in prison. She never home for three years until I was 10. I lived with my grandmother but she also had a responsibility of older children that my mother had before. Then she come back, finally come back to home, come back to us. When she come back, she was really sick. She couldn't move, she couldn't eat, she couldn't talk for a year and she was in a hospital. I couldn't go to school because I had to nurse my mom. Then about a year she passed away without saying any last words because she was very sick.
Benjamin Shapiro: You knew your mother until you were 11 years old?
Charles Ryu: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Benjamin Shapiro: How do you think about that relationship?
Charles Ryu: It was really bad relationship.
Benjamin Shapiro: Do you love your mother?
Charles Ryu: I do love her because she's my mom, obviously. It's not her fault, right? It's just my father who just abandons her and abandons me too. After my mom passed away, life was really hard. In North Korea, they have like a garage, you put your food enough for the winter, like animals when they hibernate. But for our house, there's nothing in it. I didn't even have clothes to wear. I went to dumpster and I picked up the clothes and just wear it. In North Korea, the shoes is a plastic for summer, when there's rain, then the rain doesn't get in your feet. In winter, I wear a plastic shoes and the other side of my foot I wear a winter shoes.
Benjamin Shapiro: You have mismatched shoes.
Charles Ryu: I had a mismatched shoes. I go to school like that for a couple of months.
Benjamin Shapiro: The other kids make fun of you?
Charles Ryu: Of course. "Oh, look at that. Look at this silly." Well, I was the only one who's just sitting in a corner all by myself. That was kind of sad. Eventually my grandmother says, "I can't take care of you because I'm too old. It is time I send you to your aunt." When I was 11 years, in 2005, she sends me to my aunt's house. Then in winter I arrived at her house.
Benjamin Shapiro: Where is the new city you're moving to?
Charles Ryu: The new city is right next to Pyongyang and it is really close to South Korea. It's called Hwanghaebuk-do, Sariwon City.
Benjamin Shapiro: One more time.
Charles Ryu: Hwanghaebuk-do, Sariwon City.
Benjamin Shapiro: Okay.
Charles Ryu: This city is kind of rich. It is really close to Pyongyang. It has electricity and it has water, the people are really well-educated, lots of apartments. I never saw apartments before, in this small town, in my life. When I arrived at my auntie's house, she was a doctor, my uncle, he was eye doctor at the biggest, at the hospital in the whole Sariwon City. My aunt was really nice. But those like two years was the only time that I went to school in North Korea so I start as a freshman, like I'm a really freshman. Even though I was 11 years old I have to take a class for nine years old. I don't know if some things with me. I think I had a lot of stresses. I think a lot of shocking. I never wet my bed, but when I lived with my aunt I wet my back even though I was 11. I never did that before. I never did that. I don't know, because I think the stress of losing my mom, being by myself, every night I wet my bed. My uncle hated me to death. "It's winter, you cannot even open the door." and I'm wetting my bed. It smells so bad. In the first three months, "Well, it's okay. It's curable." My uncle said, "It's okay. It's curable. We can cure you." I'm doing that for a couple of months right now, my uncle is like, "You know what, I'm done now. I can't do this anymore." He keeps talking to my aunt, talking bad about me. "We have to kick him out. Charles is not allowed to be here because he's peeing on our bed. Look at us, we're smelly."
Benjamin Shapiro: Tell me a little about the place you were living, it's your aunt and your uncle, do they have children?
Charles Ryu: Yes. They have a one child, which is one or two years older than me.
Benjamin Shapiro: Was it a big house? Was it an apartment?
Charles Ryu: It's apartment but it's only one room. There is no restroom. You have to go to a public restroom.
Benjamin Shapiro: Everybody have their own bed?
Charles Ryu: Not so many people do because it's expensive. Everybody sleeps on the floor. Well, my aunt did. She had a bed. But yeah, it's only for the old people. It's like showing respect. Okay, you sleep on the bed. I'll sleep on the floor. Well, I slept on the floor but I was wetting my blankets. My uncle keep telling my auntie to kick me out. It was winter too. How could she, because she loves me? She's really nice. She loves me. But because of her husband talking or bad talking, trash talking. Right? Every time how their conversation ends is me being kicked out from the house even though summer heat or winter cold, right?
Benjamin Shapiro: Right. When you say you're being kicked out of the house, tell me what that means?
Charles Ryu: Well, that's kick out, it's, "Get out from my house. Get it out." With just my underwear on. Everybody else is on the outside at night time and everybody is laughing at me. "Oh, he's 11 years old. He's wetting his bed," and like, "Oh, my God. Look at him." Make fun of me. In the winter, it's really cold, but some nice people, they bring blanket, here you go.
Benjamin Shapiro: Where do you sleep?
Charles Ryu: Well, I couldn't sleep. I was just waiting till my aunt to come pick me up, just like freezing. Then maybe at midnight after they done fighting and come to pick me up, come to bring me back. It's different at the summer time. When I get kicked out, I go sleep at the garage, the roof. In North Korea, they did that a lot because it's really hot during the summer. Because in North Korea, there's apartment, right, and everybody has their garage outside of the apartments. Night view is really nice because you can see everybody is sleeping on the floor.
Benjamin Shapiro: Did you like the town?
Charles Ryu: Well, I had a lot of friends. Well, not a lot, but because I was wetting my bed, I was the one who got abused by other kids. I have two friends that I take a picture with. That's the only friend I have. The only thing we do for fun was just catching cricket. Every after school, we go out and catch that and we cook it. We just boil the water, you just cook it and eat it just for fun. Just not worrying about anything. Even though if I go home my aunt is going to be really mad. My uncle is trying to kick me out every night. He's looking for things what I did wrong.
Benjamin Shapiro: Eventually you end up leaving. What happens?
Charles Ryu: During the time that I lived my aunt, my aunt forced me to write a letter to my father. She met them and she gets address from them. She had connections to where my father lives at.
Benjamin Shapiro: Did she know he was in China?
Charles Ryu: Yeah. He abandons me and my mother and leaves to China.
Benjamin Shapiro: Did she know he was in jail?
Charles Ryu: She didn't know.
Benjamin Shapiro: Okay.
Charles Ryu: I didn't even know either, but this is the further later on when I knew.
Benjamin Shapiro: Right.
Charles Ryu: She forced me to write a letter a month, "I'm doing really fine." In North Korean letter, you cannot say, "We're starving, please help. I'm struggling here." You can't say that because the North Korean governments cannot. If it's okay, then it's going to go. If they say anything bad things about, then it's not going to go. I have to say, father, "I'm living really my life, it's really paradise, really nice, but I really miss you. I really hope you one day just come for me." Well, I didn't say that, my aunt forced me to say that, so I said that. In two years, when I was 13 years old, my father finally returns the letter to me.
Benjamin Shapiro: Okay. It's been eight years.
Charles Ryu: Yeah, eight years.
Benjamin Shapiro: He's been out, I'm assuming he's out of jail.
Charles Ryu: Yeah. He was in prison for four years.
Benjamin Shapiro: Okay.
Charles Ryu: He got out after four years.
Benjamin Shapiro: He's been out for a couple of years and he finally wrote you back. What did the letter say?
Charles Ryu: Well, my auntie didn't show me, but I'm assuming he's really thankful that you took care of my child I really appreciated all the hard work you've done but I maybe someday, if I can meet, it's going to be really, really great but it's not going to happen. My aunt, what she did was, she didn't show me the letter, this is what I heard from my father, but she didn't show me the letter, she went to local government showed them like, "Okay. See, if I get a passport, he's going to help me out. My nephew's father is in China. If I go there I could probably get help." She wanted to get a passport. One thing really for sure that I know my grandmother was Chinese later was because she took a lot of pictures in China with the government shaking hands. Yeah. Apparently she had a lot of friends in China. My aunt was looking for connections to go to China.
Benjamin Shapiro: Is she trying to get you to go to China? Does she want to go to China?
Charles Ryu: She wanted to go to China. I can go to my father's house and get help.
Benjamin Shapiro: Is she going to take you or she ...?
Charles Ryu: No. She's not going to take me.
Benjamin Shapiro: She's just saying ...
Charles Ryu: Yes.
Benjamin Shapiro: ... me go to China so I can get help for my nephew.
Charles Ryu: Yeah, because I'm too young to travel. Right? She gets the passport but she doesn't have money to go to China. What's she doing is she's blackmailed my father saying that if you don't send me the money I'm going to send your child to orphanage.
Benjamin Shapiro: She's going to send you to orphanage.
Charles Ryu: Orphanage, yeah. Or I'm going to chop your child off and sell it as a meat.
Benjamin Shapiro: Wow.
Charles Ryu: Yeah. Even though my father abandons me, saw that and like, "What is going on?" She's holding my child as a hostage."
Benjamin Shapiro: She's blackmailing your father to try to get money so she can go to China?
Charles Ryu: Yeah. My father thinks that I'm a hostage. I mentioned that I have two step brothers and two step sisters, right?
Benjamin Shapiro: On your father's side.
Charles Ryu: Yeah, on my father's side. My father, he telling my step brother to go to the city and bring my child and you take care of him. Then one day I was out of school and I was coming home. Some strange lady shows up and like, "Hey, I'm from your father. You have to come with me immediately. We are going to get caught." I was like, "Why are you whispering to me? I don't know who you are. I don't even know who you are so I cannot go with you." Because when I was young I heard a lot of rumors too. People kidnapping children and selling as a meat.
Benjamin Shapiro: To clarify, you're saying the rule in North Korea is don't talk to strangers because they will kidnap you, kill you, and turn you into meat to sell to other people.
Charles Ryu: Yes. Yeah. I was really afraid, right? Because she was scary too. She looks really serious and, like, "Okay. You have to come with me right now." I was afraid and I just ran home. I told my auntie there's strange lady trying to get me. My auntie was laughing. "Who's going to do that?" Then 30 minutes later, this lady comes to my house and show me my father's picture, me when I take it young. "Okay. This is your father. I'm from your father and I'm going to take care of you from now." They were arguing because my auntie was using me as the bait to go to China. If I was gone she has no reason to go to China. She's trying to grab me and my brother's wife ...
Benjamin Shapiro: Your dad's son is his wife.
Charles Ryu: It's his wife. Yeah.
Benjamin Shapiro: That makes it your ...
Charles Ryu: Sister-in-law. Yeah. She tell me, "Okay. I'm your brother's wife." She also show me my brother's picture when I took it young with him. She was trying to take me to her house. My auntie is trying to keep me there. Now it's like a war. They were arguing. Outside I could hear them really loudly, "Okay. You can't take my nephew," "I'll take my brother-in-law," for hours.
Benjamin Shapiro: At first, everybody's trying to get rid of, nobody wants to take care of you.
Charles Ryu: Yeah, nobody wants to take care of me.
Benjamin Shapiro: Now your aunt realizes that she can use you to try to get to China. Now everybody wants you.
Charles Ryu: Yeah. Everybody wants me. Also because if my step brother take care of me and he knows that he will get help from his father, he will send him, let's say, another piece of rice or another piece of clothes. Yeah. Now everybody wants me. I was like, "Oh my God. What's happening?" They asked me, "What do you want?" I said, "I want to go. This is hell. You guys are fighting every night because of me and the conversation is ending me being kicked out. So how do you expect me to live my life like this?" I just tell her please let me go.
Benjamin Shapiro: How old were you?
Charles Ryu: I was 13.
Benjamin Shapiro: Okay.
Charles Ryu: Yeah. Please let me go. Right? Then my aunt was crying, holding my hands, "Please don't go. I will let you go to Chinese school in North Korea where the Chinese kids are going. If you live with me you will be having a great life later on. I will let you to be a movie star too because you're really handsome." But I said, "No. I really want to go with my sister-in-law." That's how I left off with my sister-in-law. I moved more closer to Pyongyang. The city, it's called Pyonganbuk-do, Sinuiju, it's one really big city, behind from the Pyongyang. When I got to my brother's house, they farm the rice so they eat on their farm. I could go, "Okay, Charles. Just go down there and eat for however you want." Oh, my God. I was so happy. Then I have to help in the farm everyday. My brother lived with his wife's family because he doesn't have any money to buy a house. My brother's father was the factory's accountant and he's now retired. He used to work for the governments like that so he gets benefits. He gets the whole mountain in their backyard. It's not a mountain, it's like a hill, and he had to farm all of the hill. Thirty percent of that, he give to government, 70 percent he keep it, so they are kind of rich. It's a spring, right? I have to help them farm in the spring 5 am till 10 pm everyday. Oh, my God. I felt like they'll just use me as slave or something like that. But my life was still happy. My brother was Chinese so a lot of people look at me as a Chinese too. When I was in Sariwon City with my aunt, I was the person who always get make fun of, but now I'm living my life like, "He's Chinese, your father is Chinese." A lot of neighbors' kids is trying to get to me.
Benjamin Shapiro: It sounds like what you're saying is that when you're Chinese you're looked at as special. What's the dynamic of how Chinese citizens are viewed in North Korea?
Charles Ryu: North Korean people are not allowed to know other country's people, another country's culture, except Chinese because Chinese and North Korea has special relationship. North Korean people look at Chinese people as higher than government. They think government is just strict, they don't know they're rich. As a Chinese, they think you're really rich. "Oh, my God. You're going to China?" Everybody looking at me as Chinese and really jealous of me. I get to meet a lot of new friends. I knew some rich kids too, their father owns a business at the black market.
Benjamin Shapiro: People look at you like you're special. You mix in with a more affluent crowd?
Charles Ryu: Yeah. Life is really great. Then my brother says, "Charles, do you want to look for your father?" "Hell, yeah, I want to. I want to go to China, of course." Seeing my father because I never met him. Then my brother had a smuggler in Kaesong City. How they get me, this is a river and this is North Korea, right, river side, here's my brother sending, on the other side, this is China. My father with that clothes in taxi cab. Just let me swim and that's it. There's no boat or anything, I just have to swim.
Benjamin Shapiro: What you're saying is there's a narrow river. You go with a smuggler and your brother and you pretend to take a shower and you're able to swim to the other side. Then on the other side, there's just your dad and a pair of Nike's.
Charles Ryu: Exactly. He had a Nike hat too.
Benjamin Shapiro: Oh, he had Nike hat?
Charles Ryu: Yeah. In North Korea, the Nike is really famous too. Anyway, so my brother told me like, "Okay. The other side, your father is going to be waiting with a black pants and white shirt and a hat and he's holding a clothe. You can now find him." Then I was trying to pretend like trying to go deeper and deeper and deeper because right behind me there's a security guy sit down there smoking, watching me go deeper and deeper.
Benjamin Shapiro: Are you the only person there?
Charles Ryu: No. There's a lot people washing their clothes, taking a bath.
Benjamin Shapiro: Are there people on the Chinese side too?
Charles Ryu: Well, they are just watching.
Benjamin Shapiro: Right.
Charles Ryu: In North Korea, there is no water, right? The womans come to river and take a private bath. Right? The Chinese people are watching them. That's why a lot of people in the Chinese side. That's the only reason there's a lot of Chinese guys, like older guys, like 60, 70.
Benjamin Shapiro: You're not the only person that's standing on the beach on the other side?
Charles Ryu: Yeah. The smuggler told me how to swim, where is not deep, where is water is really fast. I think the older guy didn't notice. Then when I step in the China side, my father just come down and grab my hands. I didn't know it was him. I didn't look on face. But he grabbed my hand and went to taxi cab.
Benjamin Shapiro: What did he say to you?
Charles Ryu: "Hurry up." "Hurry up." That's the first thing he said. "Hurry up. The people are seeing us. Hurry up." Then when he get in the taxi cab, he said, "I'm your father."
Benjamin Shapiro: Okay. You didn't know it was your father at first?
Charles Ryu: Yeah. I thought he was like smuggler helping me to find my father.
Benjamin Shapiro: Let's take a quick second to recap what led to Charles' first escape attempt. After Charles was born, Kim Il-sung died which caused the North Korean economy to crash and also caused a great famine. Because the economy was in shambles, Charles's father decided to leave for China but not to take Charles and his mother. He borrowed money from their neighborhood to purchase opium which caused him to be arrested for smuggling drugs when he crossed the border into China. Charles' mother was held responsible for paying the debt for Charles' family. The stress on Charles' mother caused her to have health problems which led to her death. After Charles' mother died, he moved in with his aunt and his uncle. The emotional stress on Charles caused him to frequently wet his bed, which caused strain on his relationship with his aunt and his uncle. Eventually, Charles' aunt used him as an excuse to attempt to get into China and blackmail Charles' father for money. Charles' aunt threatened to take Charles, chop him up and sell him as meat. Because of this threat, Charles' father sends Charles' sister-in-law to be his guardian and take him from his aunt where Charles was forced to decide between living with his aunt or a sister-in-law who he didn't know. When Charles chose his sister-in-law, he moved to a town that bordered China. Charles' brother organized a smuggler to help Charles get to China where Charles swam across a river and was reunited with his father. This recap was brought to you by Rinse. Rinse is a dry cleaning and laundry deliver service based in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, DC. They provide quality cleaning, convenient pick up and delivery, simple scheduling, and amazing customer service. I can vouch for them personally. I worked for Rinse for a long time. If you're looking to get some help getting one of your most time-consuming chores done, Rinse is a great service. For $25 off your first Rinse order, visit rinse.com/ben. Rinse. Clean clothes you deserve and a convenience you demand. Okay. We're going to take a break here for today and wrap this episode up. I truly hope you've enjoyed the first episode of A Long Road Home. In our next episode, we're going to sit down with Charles again to talk about what his life was like living with his father, how he was caught and deported back to North Korea, what life was like being a prisoner of the North Korean government and how he ended up being an indentured slave in a coal mine. It's an amazing story and we can't wait to bring it to you. A few minor request before we let you go. First off, if you enjoyed this podcast, we would absolutely love it for you to share it. Please write us a review on iTunes or in Stitcher. If you or anyone you know has a story that needs to be told that would be a good fit for A Long Road Home, we would love to hear from you. Please email us at podcast@benjshap.com. That's B-E-N-J-S-H-A-P dot com. Thanks for listening to the first episode of A Long Road Home. We really look forward to bring you the next episode soon.