North Korean defector visits Osan, shares story of stealing freedom

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Kim Hyuk, North Korean defector and public speaker, gives his testimony of how he lived and escaped North Korea at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, May 31, 2013. Hyuk was 19 years old when he arrived at Incheon Airport in South Korea and has since earned a masters degree. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Sara Csurilla)
Kim Hyuk, North Korean defector and public speaker, gives his testimony of how he lived and escaped North Korea at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, May 31, 2013. Hyuk was 19 years old when he arrived at Incheon Airport in South Korea and has since earned a masters degree. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Sara Csurilla)

North Korean defector visits Osan, shares story of stealing freedom

by: Staff Sgt. Sara Csurilla, 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs | .
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published: June 08, 2013

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea --  -- Standing not much taller than five foot, with a collared shirt as black as his neatly cut hair, Kim Hyuk took center stage as nearly 700 audience members eagerly waited to hear his first words echo throughout the packed yet silent theater.

He spoke; "I am so happy to be here," Hyuk said with a sincere smile.

The feeling was mutual for members of Team Osan who stood in line to hear a unique story that hasn't been told on Osan in more than 15 years.

Hyuk, a South Korean citizen who defected from North Korea in 2001, came to Osan May 31 along with the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, to share his life story with his first U.S. military audience. His testimony was one piece of a three-part informative seminar to give Airmen and their family members living in the ROK a better understanding of life and the political state of North Korea.

After watching a 30-minute documentary exploring some of the atrocious human rights violations that have and continue to take place in the extremely oppressed country, Hyuk told his story.

As he recalled memories of his past, he explained parts of his life that were hard to swallow for most. He spoke about his years as a Kotjebi, a term denoting North Korean homeless children, where the only way he was able to survive was to steal or pick food from the ground.

He spoke about how he lost both his parents before the age of 15, and how he only saw sunlight one time as he served a nine month sentence in North Korean prison for being caught crossing the border into China. As the audience hung on his every word, he even told how he escaped North Korea, nearly died of exhaustion and dehydration while crossing the Gobi Desert and arrived in South Korea at the age of 19 in September 2001.

"When I arrived at Incheon Airport in South Korea I thought I was in heaven," Hyuk said.

At 31, Hyuk has not only cheated death by surviving things that most people would never live to tell about, but has overcome many difficulties adapting to such a new environment.

"The two Koreas are very different," he explained. "Their political systems are very different and of course the culture is different."

He explained that he had a difficult time thinking for himself because North Korea is a very collective society and South Korea is more concerned about people's freedom and civil rights. He said he was so used to following a strict set of guidelines he had a hard time making decisions without instruction.

By earning his masters degree and traveling around the ROK telling his story, every day he strives to overcome what he has experienced in the past. However, the people he left behind and the memories never seem to be far from his thoughts.

"The people who remain in North Korea are leading very difficult lives and I know even at this very moment they are suffering," Hyuk said. "Whenever I think of them my heart aches and feels like something sharp is stabbing my heart. Because of that feeling I always go out and try to talk and deliver my message and try to bring something to improve the situation in North Korea."

As Hyuk finished telling his tale of stealing freedom, the entire theater came to their feet, giving him a round of applause. Before ending the event, Col. Patrick McKenzie, 51st Fighter Wing commander, shared a few words after thanking Hyuk and the CANKHR for visiting Osan.

"I am very much reminded like many of you, of how lucky we have it," said McKenzie. "None of us chose where we were born and we are very fortunate to be born and raised in a country like the United States or South Korea where there is much and there is plenty. We stand in our uniform as a beacon of hope so that others won't have to live through similar situations." 

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