By Joel P. Engardio
Cheol Ryu escaped starvation and forced labor in a North Korean coalmine as a teenager. Now, he’s trying to realize the American dream as a 22-year-old community college student and Lyft driver in the Bay Area.
Ryu is one of about 200 North Korean refugees living in the United States. He’s here because President George W. Bush signed the North Korean Human Rights Act. Ryu has only known America as a welcoming lifeline, which is why he doesn’t understand President Donald Trump’s ban on Syrian refugees.
“I was really shocked. I had no freedoms in North Korea. No freedom of thought, speech or religion. Resettlement was the only hope I had,” said Ryu, who came to the U.S. at 17 and will become a citizen in September. “It’s not right that all refugees are treated like criminals. People should learn the truth about refugees. We have already been though a lot.”
Ryu’s favorite American song is “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls. Consider the lyrics: “When everything's meant to be broken, I just want you to know who I am.”
So, I listened to his story...
Ryu told me he was born in 1994, the first year of a massive famine in North Korea. His parents weren’t married. Ryu and his mother had to fend for themselves after Ryu’s Chinese father left for China with his legal wife and kids.
When Ryu was 11, his mother died of malnutrition.
An abusive aunt took Ryu in and threatened to sell him as meat. It was a ploy to get assistance from Ryu’s father, capitalizing on a widespread fear that orphaned children were victims of cannibalism.
At 13, Ryu swam across a river at the Chinese border with the help of a smuggler sent by his father. Ryu got to know his father in China for nine months – until neighbors reported the teenage fugitive. Deemed an illegitimate son, Ryu was deported back to North Korea.
“I was a criminal because no one should want to leave North Korea,” said Ryu, who was a prisoner in a labor camp at 14. “We’re supposed to believe it’s the best country in the whole world and that our leader is God.”
But Ryu said he survived work in a North Korean coalmine by relying on the God he discovered during his time in China.
“A pastor taught me about Jesus and how to pray,” Ryu said. “I just kept praying for help.”
The opportunity to run away came when Ryu was 17. He was sent to retrieve gear outside the coalmine gates and happened upon a stalled train. He blended in with passengers gathered near the tracks and snuck on board. He evaded capture by riding between cars, hiding in the toilet and hanging outside a window.
The train took Ryu to the river he swam across four years earlier at the Chinese border. As before, he joined North Koreans allowed to wash on the riverbank at a certain hour. Then, he hid in the bushes and waited to cross at nightfall.
But this time, a North Korean guard spotted Ryu mid-swim and aimed his rifle.
“The guard said he was going to shoot and never did,” Ryu said. “He was a kid like me and probably just as scared. He watched as the current carried me to China.”
Ryu walked barefoot for three days, his feet bleeding. He ate the bits of food left as offerings at roadside Buddhist shrines.
Exhausted and dehydrated, Ryu collapsed on the side of a highway.
“I prayed to God: ‘Don’t let me die like this.’”
A man on a motorcycle stopped, gave Ryu water and brought him home. He had a son Ryu’s age. The man introduced Ryu to a Christian missionary who helped Ryu travel secretly by land from China to a United Nations refugee camp in Thailand.
Still a minor at 17, Ryu qualified for foster care in the United States. A Chinese family in Concord sponsored him through their church. They changed his first name from Cheol to Charles.
Ryu worked at a Concord sushi restaurant and attended three years of high school, graduating at 20. He learned English, made friends and even fell in love.
“I was really into a girl, but she left me heartbroken,” Ryu said. “Now I just listen to songs about love. No more girls for me until I’m successful.”
Ryu is focused on money because his monthly $1,400 government stipend ends in April. The funds covered his car payment and the room he rents in San Jose.
“I’m going to have to work harder,” said Ryu, who monetized his car with jobs as a driving instructor and Lyft driver.
Many of his San Francisco passengers are tech workers, which is what Ryu wants to be – just not always buried in a phone.
“People should look around at what’s going on and care about others,” Ryu said. “It might help them enjoy their day more.”
Benjamin Shapiro will never forget putting his phone down when Ryu drove him from the Mission to the Marina last summer.
"I sit up front and talk to my Lyft driver because they are people, not just part of an app,” Shapiro said. “When Charles said he was from North Korea, it got my attention. When I heard that he was a child slave in a coalmine, I knew I needed to hear the rest of his story.”
Shapiro, 36, was inspired to launch a podcast called “A Long Road Home.” It gives people working in the on-demand economy a platform to tell their story in their own words. The first episode features Ryu.
By telling the world about his plight, Ryu hopes he can inspire listeners to care about the people still suffering in North Korea. He also considers the podcast a blessing.
“I have to thank God because I almost died many times,” said Ryu, who worships at Korean Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in San Jose. “I believe God saved me for a reason.”
Ryu is studying software engineering at De Anza College and hopes to attend UC Berkeley. He wants to work in cyber security to defend America from enemy hackers. He also wants to join the U.S. Army Reserve so he can serve in military intelligence and help liberate North Korea.
“I want to light a fire of truth,” he said, “that will spread like flames on dry grass.”
While Ryu recognizes America’s exceptional ability to promote freedom and offer compassion to others in need, he realizes American values don’t come easy and require defending.
“America is heaven compared to life in North Korea. It’s the land of opportunity,” Ryu said. “Now that I’m here, I’m aware Americans have very different beliefs depending on where they live. But we need to appreciate our freedom and not use it to hurt other people. We need to understand each other.”