This is the incredible story of a North Korean escapee who miraculously survived imprisonment in a labour camp by eating dried vomit off the ground.
He was born to a Chinese father and North Korean mother. When he was just 5 years old his father abandoned the family – returning to China.
Six years later, Charles’ mother died fromstarvation and he ended up living with his aunt before eventually escaping to China and reuniting with his father in 2008.
‘Life in China was so much better. I was so happy because I was living my life in freedom,’ he told SoulPancake.
‘But the happiness I felt in China was only temporary.’
Because the Chinese government does not recognise North Korean citizens as refugees – Charles was soon deported back to North Korea.
Upon his return he was brutally interrogated by officials who tried to pressgang him into admitting he had been trying to defect to South Korea.
He denied the charges and after being beaten for weeks – Charles was sent off to the North’s notorious labour camps.
‘In the labour camp I was only allowed to eat 150 kernels of corn a day,’ Charles added.
‘One morning we were marching in our rows and I saw dried vomit on the side of the road.
‘I was so hungry that I got on my hands and knees and started eating the rice from the vomit. I didn’t stop until the beating from the guards was too unbearable.’
Eight months later Charles was released because he could barely stand up or lift his arms.
After months of recovery – he began working in a coal mine where he was paid only in rice.
While working the mines Charles said cave-ins were common and he regularly saw other miners lose their arms and legs from falling rocks.
‘I worked in the mine for about a year. And I realised it was my time to try and escape North Korea again,’ he said.
‘I knew how hard it would be without any money or food. And I knew that if I was caught I would be killed.
‘But those risks outweighed working in the dark coal mine every day until it was my turn to lose a limb or die.’
One morning as he was due to start work – Charles simply ran away from the compound he was staying in.
He spent months in hiding – being hunted by the police at every turn.
‘I made it by train to a town near the border when a guard put his hand on the back of my neck and dragged me to a holding cell in the train.
‘As the train began to slow down for a stop – I saw a window was unlocked so I pushed it open and squeezed out of the small opening.
‘I jumped off the moving train and began sprinting. I ran for hours, illegally borded a second train and two days later made it to the border.’
But there was still a river in between him and freedom in China.
Waiting until it was pitch black – Charles made a final effort to cross the border, wading up to his waist in the river as he attempted to cross.
As he began to wade in, however, he slipped on a rock and let out a scream.
‘Immediately a floodlight was on my back, and I heard a guard screaming at me.’ he continued.
‘He said he would shoot me if I didn’t turn back.
‘I knew that I was dead either way. He would shoot me or I would return to the shore and be shipped off to a labour camp again. So I decided not to turn back.
‘Five minutes later I was dripping wet but finally back in China.’
Charles spent three days walking after crossing the border and was eventually found collapsed in the middle of the road.
The man who found him helped Charles get in touch with US immigration services who granted him a visa to go to America.
‘As I stepped off the plane in California, I felt this strange feeling I had never felt before – safety.
‘I was finally safe and I didn’t need to hide any more.’
In the five years since he has graduated from high school, learned near-perfect English and started working as a sushi chef.
Charles says his life in America has not been easy but he is extremely grateful that he was lucky enough to escape.
The Korean peninsula is at a turning point in its history as crucial talks between the North, South and US are due to take place in Singapore next month.
The planned talks which will see President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un go toe-to-toe in negotiations – hit a roadblock last week, however, after the North Korean leader called out the President over aerial drills being staged in the region.
Operation ‘Max Thunder’, an annual collaboration between the US and South Korean air forces, will see nearly 100 warplanes carrying out exercises.
But the North’s chief negotiator Ri Son Gwon labelled the South ‘incompetent and senseless’ over the decision to press ahead with the combat drills.
Relations between the US and North Korea reached their zenith only a few weeks ago as Kim released several American prisoners who had been imprisoned in the country for some time.
President Trump had hoped to persuade Kim to agree to a full programme of denuclearisation in return for a loosening of the stringent sanctions currently strangling North Korean trade.
Figures on both sides of the border are now waiting with baited breath to see whether the negotiations will go ahead and what can be achieved if they do.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CONFLICT BETWEEN NORTH KOREA AND SOUTH KOREA
In June 1950 fighting broke out between the communist North and capitalist South, sparking a brutal war that killed between two and four million people.
Beijing backed Pyongyang in the three-year conflict, while Washington threw its support behind the South — alliances that have largely endured.
The Koreas have been locked in a dangerous dance ever since that conflict ended in 1953 with an armistice rather than a formal peace treaty, leaving them technically at war.
Pyongyang has tested the fragile ceasefire with numerous attacks.
The secretive nation sent a team of 31 commandos to Seoul in a botched attempt to assassinate then-President Park Chung-Hee in 1968. All but two were killed.
In the ‘axe murder incident’ of 1976, North Korean soldiers attacked a work party trying to chop down a tree inside the Demilitarized Zone, leaving two US army officers dead.
Pyongyang launched perhaps its most audacious assassination attempt in Myanmar in 1983, when a bomb exploded in a Yangon mausoleum during a visit by South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan. He survived but 21 people, including some government ministers, were killed.
In 1987 a bomb on a Korean Air flight exploded over the Andaman Sea, killing all 115 people on board. Seoul accused Pyongyang, which denied involvement.
The North’s founding leader Kim Il-Sung died in 1994, but under his son Kim Jong-Il it continued to prod its southern neighbor.
In 1996 a North Korean submarine on a spying mission ran aground off the eastern South Korean port of Gangneung, sparking 45-day manhunt that ended with 24 crew members and infiltrators killed.
A clash between South Korean and North Korean naval ships in 1999 left some 50 of the North’s soldiers dead.
In March 2010 Seoul accused Pyongyang of torpedoing one of its corvette warships, killing 46 sailors. Pyongyang denied the charge.
November that year saw North Korea launch its first attack on a civilian-populated area since the war, firing 170 artillery shells at Yeonpyeong. Four people were killed, including two civilians.
North Korea has steadfastly pursued its banned nuclear and ballistic missile programs since its first successful test of an atomic bomb in 2006, as it looks to build a rocket capable of delivering a warhead to the US mainland.
Its progress has accelerated under leader Kim Jong-Un, culminating in its sixth and biggest nuclear test in September 2017.
Kim has since declared the country a nuclear power.
Despite the caustic effect of clashes and the battery of conventional weapons that the North has amassed at the border to threaten Seoul, the two nations have held talks in the past.
Then North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il held two historic summits with counterparts from the South in 2000 and 2007, which eased tensions between the neighbors.
Lower-level talks since then have been much hyped but failed to produce significant results.