Challenges of Freedom
Four North Korean defectors' experiences of resettling to South Korea.
It was the greatest country in the world. Sure, sometimes they saw people die from starvation and heard rumors of people disappearing into prison camps, but it was like that everywhere. At least that’s what they were told. But as foreign media started to spill into the country, they realized it wasn’t like that everywhere; they weren’t living in the greatest country in the world. A better life was out there and they knew they needed to leave to find it.
Every year, many North Koreans risk their lives to escape one of the world’s most oppressive regimes. They trek through jungles and over mountains, terrified of being caught and sent back. Once they finally reach freedom, they start over. New cultures, new opportunities, new challenges.
Here are four of their stories.
Ill Yong opens Google Maps, trying to find a satellite image of his childhood house. This always makes him homesick. When he zooms in on his house, a blurry gray square surrounded by snow, he remembers the nearby waterfall and the summer days he spent playing there. But he also remembers how hard it was living in North Korea. His family listened to illegal South Korean radio every night but had to keep it hidden from friends and neighbors. If caught, they could have been sent to a political prison camp or even executed.
Ill Yong resettled to South Korea in 2009 and, even though his family was with him, starting over in a new country was challenging. The everyday moments took adjusting to. His first time at a buffet, Ill Yong was so overwhelmed by the massive amount of food that he just took a small bowl of rice. The first time he tried to use an escalator he was so confused about what to do that he jumped on at the bottom and then jumped off at the top. Ill Yong has now been in South Korea for nine years and is studying to become a Human Rights lawyer. A lot has changed since he first arrived (he now knows how to get on an escalator) but he still thinks about his old home in North Korea and hopes to see it again in person one day.
Noel came to South Korea in 2010 with a shy personality and a strong North Korean accent. She wanted to blend quietly into her new culture, but people constantly asked where she was from. School was also a struggle. In North Korea, she had dropped out after the first grade to stay home and help her mother. What she did learn at school was of little help in her new life. She was used to curriculum that focused on the Kim family. Determined to catch up, she began reading lots of books.
Noel is currently studying to become a writer and is no longer behind in school. Her new challenge is figuring out what to do with her freedom. Living in North Korea, she just followed the regime and did whatever she was told. It was the only option. Now, faced with endless choices, she knows that there is a responsibility that comes with freedom, and she wants to use it wisely.
Jessie was overwhelmed. She was by herself in an unfamiliar country. So much was unknown: how to get around, where to study, how to make new friends, and even where to buy groceries. She wasn’t used to this new culture’s rules and norms. The first time she heard someone publicly criticize the South Korean president she was stunned. Freely expressing any negative thoughts about the regime was unheard of in North Korea.
Jessie now understands her new culture and loves her freedoms, especially being able to watch whatever dramas she wants without fear of punishment. South Korea has become her home, but she still longs for the day she can return to North Korea. Her parents have both passed away and she wants to go and pay her respects in person.
Geum Hyok stood by himself in an empty apartment wondering if he made a mistake. He had no friends and no family there to reassure him. Feeling lonely but determined to make a life for himself, he started classes at Korea University where he met people who were kind to him and checked on him regularly. Their friendship helped him not feel as lonely. Except for the couple times he was turned down for a job because they didn’t want to hire a North Korean, most people were welcoming to him. But what surprised him most was how many South Koreans didn’t know what was happening in North Korea. Geum Hyok didn’t blame them, he knew humans rights was complicated. But it was still disappointing.
Now, Geum Hyok is studying politics and diplomacy and enjoys having the freedom to do what he wants. He no longer questions his choice to escape but he does think about his loved ones still in North Korea. He especially misses his mother whom he hasn’t seen or spoken to in eight years. He is waiting for the day North Korea finally opens so they can be reunited.
The Red Box: Misunderstandings and Stereotypes about North Koreans
For North Korean refugees, resettling in a new society comes with many challenges. One of these challenges is overcoming the stereotypes about North Korea and the North Korean people.
In the latest episode of The Red Box, our North Korean friends and 2019 LiNK Advocacy Fellows talk about the struggle of of facing stereotypes after resettling in South Korea.
Watch as Jeongyol, Joy, Dasom, and Ilhyeok answer your questions in The Red Box Series!
Read the transcript of this episode below!
All: Welcome to the Red Box!
Are there any misunderstandings about the North Korean people that make you feel uncomfortable?
Joy: When I first came to South Korea, was working part-time at a convenience store. I was still very young and had a very heavy North Korean accent.
In South Korea, when a customer enters the part-time employees don't really greet them. But I used to greet the customers standing and say "Welcome!" so people would ask me where I'm from.
I'd tell them that I'm from North Korea. They'd say "oh really?" After they get their stuff and put them on the counter, they'd asked me if I ever had jjajangmyun or pork in North Korea? They'd ask me these types of questions. Some people ask because they don't know but sometimes they ask questions that insinuate that we were all so poor in North Korea. Not everyone in North Korea is like that. There's people who live well too
Jeongyol: If someone asked me that, I’d tell them I might've lived a wealthier life there [in North Korea].
Joy: So those types of questions made me feel a little uncomfortable.
Jeongyol: A lot of people think like that.
Dasom: People think that all North Koreans are poor, ignorant, and uneducated. People have told me that even though I must have starved and lived poorly in North Korea, I don't look the part.
Maybe some people did or didn't have enough food to eat. There are poor people and there are rich people too. Every country is the same — it’s the same in South Korea too. There are rich, poor, and homeless people in South Korea too. I don't think it's right to judge someone like that. It made me feel very uncomfortable
Jeongyol: When I was in high school, there was a soccer match between North Korea and South Korea. But all of a sudden they asked me which team I'm cheering for. So I was startled by the question.
Should I say I'm cheering for North Korea or South Korea? What's my identity?
Even though I'm living in South Korea as a South Korean citizen, they didn't recognize the fact that I'm also South Korean. That we were the same people.
So at the time I answered, "I'm not cheering for either team. I don't care who wins. I’m just watching the game for fun.” It went over smoothly but afterward I kept thinking about it. But now that I think about it…It wasn't my choice to be born in North Korea.
Jeongyol: I could've been born in the U.S. but somehow I was born in North Korea.
Anyone could've been born in North Korea.
It's not anyone's fault. So from that moment on, I became confident. I am just who I am.
Ilhyeok: I have this older friend from China. During holidays like in January, he'd always ask me if I am visiting my hometown. Whenever he asks me that question, I want to be able to tell him that I'm am going [home] but I can't because I can't go back so I just don’t answer him. When he asked me if I'm going home, I just wished that I could return home one day.
It's heartbreaking not being able to go home.
During Chuseok and New Year's Day, those two holidays are when I miss home the most.
Joy: One uncomfortable question for me was when I was in school or met people was when they asked me why there's no riot or uprising in North Korea. Sometimes people ask because they really don't know but sometimes they insinuate that we're cowards.
And with that viewpoint, they ask why we won't revolt against the government. I try to explain but they still insist and say, ”But you guys still should have done something.” That makes me a little sad.
In North Korea, there's a system of monitoring each other. So if one person says something bad, they'd get reported right away and taken.
Jeongyol: In South Korea there were a lot of civil riots so they ask why we didn't do anything in North Korea.
Joy: But it's a very different situation.
Jeongyol: The system doesn't allow it.
What also made me uncomfortable was if I did something wrong, people would blame it because I'm North Korean.
They say things like, “It's because she's North Korean.” That made me upset. Other people say bad things and make mistakes too. But because of one mistake they say all North Koreans are like that and that I wouldn't know things or be able to do things because I'm from North Korea.
I hated hearing that so I wouldn't tell anyone that I was from North Korea.