Hae Sun was rescued while hiding in China in 2013. Now safely resettled in South Korea, she attends a two-year college as a business/Chinese major and she just finished her first semester. Choosing to go to college was not an easy decision for her. She was adjusting to the many differences in South Korean society and dealing with loneliness, low self-esteem, and anxiety issues. But, ultimately her drive to pursue her dreams was stronger than the challenges she faced. Now, she’s excited to achieve the goals she has set out for herself.
“When I got my acceptance letter to a two-year college in South Korea, I thought of my mom who is still in North Korea. I wished she could’ve heard the good news and congratulated me. I haven’t heard from her since I left North Korea a few years ago. I don’t even know whether she is still alive. I know she would be very proud of me for attending college.” – Hae Sun
Our resettlement coordinator Jihyun recently met up with Hae Sun to see how she has been doing since starting college. Read their conversation below:
Jihyun: “How was your first semester?”
Hae Sun: It was not easy at all. In the beginning, I struggled so much. There were so many things my South Korean classmates easily understood that I didn’t because of the different education systems between North Korea and South Korea. I also didn’t study for more than 10 years because I didn’t get a proper middle school/high school education in North Korea and spent a long time hiding in China.
I didn’t do well for my midterms, but did better for my finals. Throughout the semester there were many moments when I really wanted to give up and drop out of school because studying was so hard and things were difficult for me, but I didn’t give up.
Jihyun: “Other than studying what else was difficult during your first semester?”
Hae Sun: Well, making friends in college was not easy. You know, I am at least 10 years older than most other freshmen. I am still afraid that they might not feel comfortable being around me because I am a lot older and culturally different from them. Some students have been so nice to me and I shouldn’t think that way, but I still get self-conscious about my age and background, which I know hinders me from getting close to them. Next semester I will try to be around other students more without worrying about my age and background.
Jihyun: What was the best part of your first semester?
Hae Sun: I was able to clearly understand a lot of Chinese grammatical stuff, which I had struggled with for a while. I was hiding in China for a long time so I learned conversational Chinese through talking with Chinese people, but I never learned it in school, so there were still a lot of grammatical rules I didn’t understand. Since I started studying Chinese as my major, I have learned a lot of those rules. I am so so happy about it and thankful for my education.
Jihyun: “What was one of new things you started doing after coming to South Korea?”
Hae Sun: Volunteer work to help people in need. In North Korea, I never thought of helping other people because I had so many difficulties then. I have been part of a group of volunteers for the past year that gives food to homeless people in train stations in Seoul. The group consists of young resettled North Korean refugees like me and South Korean college students.
Even after I resettled to South Korea, I didn’t think of helping others because I didn’t have a lot and thought I had to resettle successfully first. But while volunteering through the group, I have realized that I don’t need to have a lot of money or time to help other people.
Sharing what I have with others and helping them makes me happy now. In North Korea and China when I was always in need, I thought only receiving could make me happy, but now I know giving also makes me happy. That is why I do the outreach volunteer work for the homeless.
Jihyun: What were some of the difficulties you had when you first came to South Korea?
Hae Sun: Before I came to South Korea, I thought I would be fine communicating with people here because we speak the same language, but I was not aware of a lot of the differences between the South Korean language and the North Korean language because the two countries have been separated for almost 70 years.
At first I struggled a lot. There were many times when I either didn’t understand South Koreans or they didn’t understand me due to our different accents and words. Although there are still words and expressions I don’t completely understand, I am a lot more used to it than when I first came here. I have learned a lot of new words and expressions while working different jobs with South Koreans and through attending college here.
Actually at the beginning of this semester, I didn’t understand a lot of words that other students would use because I am even more unfamiliar with words young people use here. Still, I get confused about some South Korean expressions and words and sometimes I still don’t understand what my professors say. I used to get stressed out about it so much, but now I try to give myself more grace about my language issues. I mean I will keep learning new things and trying to get used to them for the rest of my life here. I will just face them instead of avoiding or getting stressed about them. That is why I am in college so that I can learn, right?
Another difficulty was loneliness…I still feel lonely from time to time. I really miss my family. I actually had depression when I first came to South Korea because of loneliness. Now I don’t have depression anymore because of new friends I have made since I came to South Korea. My church community has especially made me feel loved and encouraged and has been helping me overcome loneliness and depression.
Jihyun: What is freedom to you?
Hae Sun: Freedom enables me to do what I want and visit the places and countries where I want to go as long as I have the willpower and make the effort. None of this was possible back in North Korea.
Jihyun: What do you want to say to people around the world who support you and other North Koreans?
Hae Sun: I really thank them from the bottom of my heart. They have never met me and they don’t know me, but they have supported me so much. Thanks to their support I am now enjoying my freedom and pursuing my college education. What is more moving to me is they have given me all the support without asking anything in return. I am so touched by their unconditional support. I cannot thank the supporters enough.
Jihyun: How do you want people in the world to see North Korea and the North Korean people?
Hae Sun: I want the world to distinguish between its people and its leaders. I know that the regime is bad and has done a lot of evil things, but the ordinary people are innocent.
Jihyun: What is the most important value in life?
Hae Sun: Having goals to achieve. I didn’t have a lot of goals until I came to South Korea. After escaping in my early 20s, I didn’t have any goals other than just surviving and not getting repatriated back to North Korea…I didn’t even want to live a long life. I just wanted to live until I turned 30. But now, I want to live for a long time because I have a lot of goals to achieve.
I would feel so sad if I only lived until I turned 30 now. That is not enough time to do all the things I want to do.
Jihyun: What are your future goals?
Hae Sun: I always wanted to go to college in North Korea and China, but it was not possible due to my social status and other obstacles in those countries. I am living that dream by attending college with a major I really enjoy studying. Now my goal for the future is to successfully finish college and get a job I am passionate about. I don’t know what kind of job I want yet, but I know I will find one if I keep doing my best in college.