Kim Seong Ryeol was 10 when he witnessed his first public execution. He recalls it being a monthly event in his North Korean hometown, with police gathering crowds near a local market where they would shoot or hang people accused of criticizing the regime.
More than two decades later, Kim finds himself in a different world — sitting in a futuristic, glass-clad skyscraper in the heart of Seoul, the capital of neighboring South Korea.
Kim is one of around 30,000 North Koreans who have escaped their totalitarian regime by fleeing south.
In 2015, after completing his undergraduate studies, he won a scholarship from the Open Society Foundation, a New York-based grant-making organization, to do a master’s degree in unification studies at a South Korean university.
The 32-year-old was recently awarded a Fulbright scholarship to do a Ph.D. in the U.S. As a boy he used to dream of killing American soldiers, but no more. “When I was little, every book, every curriculum, they always mentioned that America is the enemy.”
He’s also become a Christian, a religion he knew next to nothing about before leaving his homeland. In 2009, he attended a school run by Youth With a Mission, a Texas-based Christian missionary organization. “It broadened my perspective, when I met my American friends, and made me think differently, to see that the world is global,” he says.