North Korean refugee shares story of escape journey


On Wednesday, April 16, Joseph Han, a North Korean refugee, spoke to the Trinity community about his escape from North Korea.  The talk was titled “My Exit to Academic Freedom: A North Korean Physicist’s Harrowing Journey.”

The lecture was organized by Hyon Joo Yoo, associate professor of political science, Kwan Cheng, associate professor of physics and astronomy, and Dennis Ugolini, associate professor and chair of the physics and astronomy department.

The event was sponsored by the several departments and committees at Trinity including political science, physics and astronomy, modern language and literature, the East Asian Studies Program, and the Trinity University Lecturers and Visiting Scholars Committee.

During the lecture, Han shared details of his journey out of North Korea and his dream to become a physicist.

“I could not achieve my dream to be a scientist in North Korea. Also I could not survive in North Korea, so I made a decision to escape,” Han stated.

The chief motivating factor for Han’s decision to escape was the famine that his family faced in the 1990s.

“My family almost starved to death. In those days many people died from starvation. Some researchers have estimated that about two or three million people have died in late 90s and early 2000s,” Han said. “One out of eight people in North Korea died from famine.”

Han shared the details of the night he escaped from North Korea.

“On a severely cold day in February of 1999, I escaped North Korea and fled to China. I took a chance while the guards were slacking off due to the severely cold weather and the dark night,” Han stated. “And I crossed the Tumen River. When I was leaving North Korea I carried a knapsack with some physics and math books.”

While in North Korea, Han was a student at the University of Natural Science, one of the top universities in North Korea. Han’s interest in physics and his desire to learn continued after he had escaped from North Korea., as he explained when describing his journey. Han described how he used to write physics equations in the snow while he was in the Chinese mountains.

“During the break time”¦I used to practice writing Maxwell’s equation in the snow,” Han shared.

Yoo explained the great threat that Joseph Han and other North Korean refugees face when they escape to China.

“The Chinese government does not allow North Korean illegal people there. They send all the North Korean back”¦and often time these North Korean people are executed if they come back,” Yoo said.

Han described how he traveled to South Korea to seek amnesty.

“Then I decided to go to South Korea where I did not face the risk of repatriation to North Korea,” Han said.

Han explained how he was accepted into a doctorate program at Texas A&M University.

“I received admission to a Ph.D. program to Texas A&M University, the top physics programs in that year,” Han said.

Han currently lives in College Station with his wife and two sons. His mother and sister escaped from North Korea as well. His brother remains in North Korea.

Han faced extraordinary challenges during his escape from North Korea according to Esteban Rodriguez Vasquez, junior and political science major. Vasquez described Han’s escape journey.

“It was so interesting  to hear his story of escape, getting away from the police, from the border patrol, going on a 3000-mile journey to freedom, and then going to South Korea and then going back to China to rescue his sister and mother,” Vasquez said. “It is literally an epic journey.”