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Johnny Han Q&A: Striving for success after homelessness in North Korea

August 30, 2018
by Jeff Kim, Bush Institute Human Freedom Consultant
2018 North Korea Freedom Scholarship recipient Johnny Han describes his childhood in North Korea, his thoughts on US-North Korea relations, and his goal of becoming a Foreign Service Officer.

Jeff Kim: Johnny, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

Johnny Han: I'm a North Korean defector. This year, I applied for the George Bush North Korea Freedom Scholarship program, and they accepted my application. I'm so excited and happy about it!

JK: How old were you when you escaped from North Korea? Were you able to go to school?

JH: I was 17. I was able to go to school, but I had to bring a bribe for the teacher. Life there is hard for everyone, and there is not enough for everybody. We can't afford to bring the little we have to school, but if you don't bring anything, the teachers will beat up the students. I just gave up going to school so I wouldn't get beaten. I didn't graduate from high school and became homeless.

JK: Why did you decide to come to the United States rather than going to South Korea?

JH: If you’re lucky, you will escape. If you’re unlucky, you are caught by the Chinese and sent back to North Korea. I said, ‘If I'm lucky, I will try to do big things.’ That’s why I decided to come to the United Sates.

JK: How did you hear about the scholarship?

JH: I heard about it through a friend on Facebook. I didn't have any educational background in the United States. I escaped from North Korea before I graduated high school. The first step [was] to go to a community college and get a two-year associate degree. When I signed up for school, I didn’t have enough [money] to cover all expenses. I asked one of my Facebook friends if he had any advice on achieving my educational goals. He told me I should apply for the George Bush North Korea Freedom Scholarship program. He sent me the link, and I was happy to know that there was someone who can help me achieve my goals. That's how I applied for the program. 

JK: What does this opportunity mean for you? 

JH: It means a lot. I'm here alone. I try to survive by myself. I work to earn money and go to school, but the program really helped me achieve my education goals because it covered my tuition.

JK: What are your plans for the fall?

JH: I didn't graduate from high school, so this fall I'm taking a grammar and writing class. I spoke with one of the ESL counselors, and she told me my English is perfect. I'm still learning and I can't speak it fully, but I try to do my best. Next spring, I would like to take a political science class.

JK: What’s next for you?

JH: My dream is to finish community college and go to Georgetown University. I would like to become a foreign service officer. I try to be a good role model for North Koreans like me. I'm trying to show all the people in the world [that with] a little help, North Koreans are going to work hard and try to achieve their goals.

JK: Not along ago we had the US-North Korea summit and talks about denuclearization and creating a relationship with North Korea. Do you think we can trust North Korea?

JH: I don't trust Kim Jong-un will give up the nuclear bombs. I can't trust him at all. I think it's fake; it's just a show.

JK: Human rights issues were not on the table during the summit. Do you think that was a mistake?

JH: Yeah, it is a big mistake. I thought President Trump would bring human rights issues up, but he never did. I know a North Korean who lives in Europe and works [on behalf of] all North Koreans. Before the summit, she posted to President Trump on Facebook to please bring up human rights with Kim Jong-un. But they never talked about human rights, just nuclear weapons. And then I was just like why? There was no reason for Trump to meet the North Korea leader. There were no topics at the summit but the nuclear issue. It’s important, but there are more important things like human rights. 

JK: More and more people are starting to show interest in North Korea. What is one thing you would like to share about North Korea or North Koreans?

JH: Not only me but other defectors who have freedom, they don't have hate for North Korea. They only have hate for the government. That’s why they are escaping North Korea and trying to find their freedom. I don't hate my country. I love my country, but I hate the  leaders who ruled North Korea like Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, I don't know Kim Jong-un generation's because I escaped before he came to power. In North Korea, you always must be loyal to the Kim family. I don't want to be loyal, but we cannot even say a word, or they will kill your [entire] family. Also, I try to tell other North Koreans to [reach] for their dreams because many people are trying to help North Koreans achieve their goals, so don't give up and always try to challenge yourself.