Q&A with North Korean escapee Peter Oh

Peter Oh is a 2019 North Korea Freedom Scholarship recipient who is pursuing his master’s degree in international policy and practice at George Washington University. He and his younger brother escaped North Korea in 2000 in search for food. He lived in China for three years before seeking asylum in South Korea with the help of Christian missionaries. He became a reporter for Radio Free Asia in Seoul and in 2010 was transferred to the Washington, D.C. office to report on North Korean issues.

Jeff Kim: Tell us a little bit about yourself?

Peter Oh: Hi, I’m Peter Oh, and I’m from North Korea. I escaped from North Korea in 2000. It’s been 19 years already. In the mid-1990s, I experienced one of the most devastating famines, also known as Arduous March in North Korea.

After my father and two of my brothers passed away from starvation, I decided to escape from North Korea, searching for food with my younger brother in 2000. When I left home, I didn’t tell my mother or sister I was going to China to make money. After escaping to China, I worked there for about three years. But I didn’t have identification, and I couldn’t risk working more because the Chinese police try to catch North Korean defectors. They don’t recognize North Koreans as refugees. They recognize us as illegals and as escapees.

I didn’t meet any other North Korean defectors when I was in China. I worked alone in a farm where I cared for around 300 sheep. I wanted to be free, and I wanted to go to a free country, either America or South Korea. I contacted North Korean defectors in South Korea, but at that time there were no defectors in America. In 2003, I was in contact with a North Korean defector in South Korea who introduced me to a missionary group, Durihana, that helped me escape. I went from China to Mongolia with eight other North Korean defectors, and after a year of waiting we were able to resettle in South Korea in 2003. A year later, my brother, who was waiting in Thailand, was able to resettle in South Korea as well. 

JK: How did you start working for Radio Free Asia (RFA)?

PO: I started working for RFA in Seoul in 2007. Before that, I worked for DailyNK, a website for informing North Korean news. After working for three years at RFA in South Korea, the RFA headquarters in Washington, D.C invited me to join their office. 

JK: What was America like when you first came? Why did you decide to come to America?

PO: When I came to the United States for the first time, I had a hard time. Even though I studied English in North and South Korea, it was very basic. I had to learn English again. Going to church and public programs in English was very helpful for beginners like me.

My dream was to study English in America, even when I was in North Korea. The North Korean government tells us that America is bad, the worst country, and that it’s always invading other countries. They say there are many beggars, people with drug problems, and gangs in America. But the funny thing was everyone liked U.S. dollars, even high-ranking officials. They tell us the U.S. is very bad, but they like U.S. stuff. So, when I was in North Korea, I was very curious about America, and I told myself I would go to the end of the world, which I believed was America. 

JK: Why is education important to you?

PO: I wanted to study international affairs because North Korean issues are very important to me – human rights abuses, nuclear weapons, and unification of the North and South.

However, I was worried because the cost of university is not cheap in the United States. Even though I had a job, I still needed to support my family. But I heard about the scholarship program from the George W. Bush Institute, and I was glad that someone was helping defectors like myself. I knew it was President Bush who signed the North Korean Human Rights Act. I’m honored and thankful to be a scholarship recipient. 

JK: What are your plans after you graduate?

PO: I’m studying international affairs and national security at George Washington University. After I graduate, I plan on contributing to the improvement of human rights in North Korea by researching how to help North Koreans and getting North Korea ready to join the international community when it opens up. 

JK: What is your view of [North Korean dictator] Kim Jong-un?

PO: When I was in North Korea, Kim Jong-il [Kim Jong-un’s father, who was in power from 1994 to 2011] was still alive. It has been 19 years since I left North Korea and when I first left, I thought North Korea would change into a normal country within three years. I thought Kim Jong-un would make changes, and seven years ago he made a promise to the North Korean people in Pyeongyang saying, “I’ll make you all happy and you will not have to suffer,” but so far, he hasn’t kept his promise. Kim Jong-un got his nuclear weapons, but he never kept his promise to the people. He can get the support he needs if he gets rid of nuclear weapons and make his people happy. I still think he can keep that promise and make his people happy.  

JK: Why is freedom important to you?
PO: I think freedom is a basic right given to all human beings. When people are born they want to be free. I was told what to do politically as a North Korean, and every aspect of my life was controlled. But I wanted to be free, and when I finally came to South Korea, life in general was very good. When I came to America, I visited the memorial for the Vietnam War and there was a quote, “freedom is not free.” For us to get freedom, we have to fight for it. Sometimes people die for freedom, and it can be easily taken away. It is a God-given right. A person like Kim Jong-un should not be in control of who gets freedom and who doesn’t.

JK: Do you have anything you’d like to say to our readers? And how can Americans help?

PO: I ask the readers, please love the North Korean people. Please help us liberate other North Koreans and learn about us. Also, pray for the North Korean people to have faith and to not suffer from starvation, and show interest in the North Korean people by helping with the issues they face.