Before he turned 18, Austin Hyeon had been in five prisons in four different countries — not because he had committed a crime, but because of his identity and his country of origin: North Korea.
On Friday afternoon, Hyeon visited as a speaker for Cornell’s debuNK — an organization that strives to raise awareness for human rights issues in North Korea — and provided a glimpse into the lives of ordinary citizens in one of the most oppressive countries in the world.
In 1994, a series of natural disasters, compounded by the loss of economic support from the Soviet Union and sanctions by the United States and the United Nations, catalyzed the most severe shortage of food in North Korean history, Hyeon said.
While Hyeon often went hungry, he was still luckier than many others.
“Some friends of mine died of starvation,” he said. “I still remember watching people carry dead bodies to the mountainside to bury them.”
For many North Koreans — including Hyeon and his family — the famine served as the impetus for the escape from North Korea to China.
Hyeon’s mother sought out a broker who, for the right price, smuggled them across the border. The family then took refuge with Chinese Christian missionaries, who provided them with food and shelter.
“The first evening … in China, I was so shocked, because I’d never seen people eating so [much] food for just one meal,” Hyeon said. “To me, China was heaven — people just ate as much as they [could], and they accumulated rice and other stuff in their house.”
From the first house that he stayed at when he arrived in China, Hyeon could still see the silhouette of North Korea.
“From North Korea to here, it took only ten minutes — but this [was] a totally different world. What kind of country had I been living in?” he said.
As he quickly learned more about the extent of the human rights issues in North Korea, Hyeon described how he was stunned as he discovered that every basic notion of his world and his life was challenged and upturned.
“I learned that I was brainwashed to believe in [the] North Korean regime and the Great Leader,” Hyeon said. “I was so upset … because I was deceived.”
Along with this enlightenment, however, came the harsh realization that Hyeon’s security still remained unstable. As a North Korean refugee, he was an unwanted person in the eyes of the Chinese government, facing the constant risk of imprisonment or repatriation back to North Korea.
This fear proved a reality — after two years, the Chinese police eventually caught Hyeon and his parents, imprisoning them for a week, and then sending them back to North Korea.
At 14, Hyeon was separated from his parents and forced into the horrific conditions of a North Korean youth prison center on his own.
“When I first get into my cell, there were three kids who were about same age like me. Two boys and one girl,” Hyeon said. “But when I first saw the girl in the prison cell, I was stunned, because her ankles were cut off. So she was moving with her two hands. She couldn’t stand, and she had to use her two hands to move … soon, I [realized that] if I stayed any longer, I could be like her, or die.”
Hyeon expressed how words failed to capture his utter despair.
“I knew that I couldn’t survive in the country. My parents were in prison, I had a sister in China — there was no reason to stay in the country,” he said. “I learned everything about this country when I was in China. I had nothing left in this country.”
Hyeon described how, recalling the message of the Chinese Christian missionaries, he desperately prayed to God for deliverance.
“I didn’t believe in God until that moment,” he said. “I just prayed, ‘If you are a real God, and if you are a living God, please rescue me from this prison.’”
The next day, by some miracle, a senior officer brought Hyeon out of his prison cell, and allowed him to roam freely on the prison yard without his supervision. Grabbing nothing but two stones — potential weapons — Hyeon took the opportunity to run away from the youth prison and successfully headed back to China.
Hyeon reunited with his mother in China, but their joy was short-lived as they soon discovered that Hyeon’s sister had been caught by the Chinese police and was being sent back to North Korea. Deciding that they could no longer live in the constant fear of having their identities discovered, Hyeon and his mother resolved to search for their freedom and safety in South Korea.
Under the guidance of a Korean American missionary that Hyeon affectionately called “Grandfather,” Hyeon, his mother and four other North Korean refugees trekked across Asia in a roundabout fashion to reach South Korea.
They travelled from China to Myanmar, where they learned that the South Korean embassy could do little to help them if they were not physically present at the embassy.
Thus, Hyeon and the other North Koreans decided to cross the Mekong River and become refugees in Laos.
“We bought four … tires. We distributed the tubes to the females, and I [held] my mom’s tube. Another North Korean person and Grandfather jumped into the water without … any tubes,” Hyeon recounted. “But we were so stupid. … We thought we could swim in the water, but because the current was so strong, we were just wash[ed] away. And, soon, we found out that Grandfather was missing. … He died.”
Hyeon and his mother had no opportunity to pay their respects to Grandfather. The next day, they were caught by the Laotian militia and were imprisoned for a month. Knowing that they would be sent to China and presumably back to North Korea, they pretended to be South Korean tourists who had lost their passports.
The Laotian government, unable to figure out where Hyeon and his mother had come from, transported them to Myanmar, where they found themselves imprisoned yet again. However, because Grandfather had been an American citizen, the U.S. government fortunately became involved in their case and Hyeon and his mother were finally sent to South Korea.
In South Korea, Hyeon entered the last year of middle school at 18.
“I decided to go to school because I know [that] if I want to be the person who can help out North Koreans, I have to learn,” he said.
After finishing South Korean high school in three years, Hyeon became the first North Korean-born person to attend a college in New Zealand. He decided to continue his education and is now a senior undergraduate student at Columbia University studying international relations.
Throughout much of his life, Hyeon concealed his identity and his place of birth, fearing for both his life and his freedom. However, he hides no longer, striving to increase the visibility of his extraordinary story to promote awareness of the human rights violations in North Korea, help other North Korean refugees and propel his dream of playing a role in the reunification of Korea.
“I’m so blessed because I’m standing here today,” Hyeon said. “I believe this is my duty [to] spread [awareness of] the situation in North Korea, and encourage people to participate in [activist] activities and send information [to] North Koreans.”