How a North Korean Defector Achieves His Dreams after Resettlement
Sang Hoon never had a place to call his own in North Korea, often spending his nights in the homes of his friends and relatives. His thoughts regularly drifted to faraway places and he imagined visiting the outside world. Sang Hoon had always been interested in other countries and hoped to work as a diplomat, but he was never able to follow his dream in North Korea.
His desire to leave his home country grew day by day until he could take it no more. After searching, he found someone to help him escape. Once in China, he connected with our network and made the journey to safety and freedom in South Korea.
Now, Sang Hoon is one of the most passionate, ambitious people we have the privilege to work with. As soon as he resettled, he began taking classes to learn how to use the computer. Most people take one class at a time, but Sang Hoon doubled up on classes and was able to get four computer certificates in very little time. He got a job at a research institute and continues to learn and strives to achieve his goals every day.Our resettlement coordinator Jihyun recently interviewed Sang Hoon. Read it below:
Jihyun What was the best thing that happened to you recently?
Sang Hoon: I bought a car after I saved up some money from working. My job requires a lot of traveling across South Korea, so I needed a car.
In North Korea, I could never even imagine having my own car because it is almost impossible for someone to own one unless they are a high-ranking government official. Even driving a car was something I could only dream about. It still feels surreal to be driving around with my own car in Seoul. I am very happy.
Jihyun You are one of the most positive people that I know. What makes you so positive?
Sang Hoon: I lived more than 40 years in North Korea and I lived for a quite short time in South Korea. The one thing I can say is this: compared to my life in North Korea, my life here is like heaven because I can make money and do my best to achieve my dreams and goals. I can even go travel abroad if I want.
In North Korea, even if the people try really hard, it is almost impossible for them to achieve their dreams and goals because of the way North Korean society is set up. So compared to North Korea, South Korea is a great society. I am thankful for it all the time because my dreams can come true if I try my best here.
I just wish I had come here earlier. If I had come in my 20s, I would’ve experienced more things and worked harder. However, I try to think of it as motivation.
I keep telling myself to study and work more than other people to make up for coming here in my late age. It is never too late.
Jihyun What were some challenges you had when you first resettled to South Korea?
Sang Hoon: When I first resettled to South Korea, I couldn’t get used to seeing young couples kissing each other and almost making out in public. (Laughs)
Seriously, when I first resettled in South Korea most necessities were covered by the government’s benefits for North Korean defectors, but still I felt a little overwhelmed by the reality that I would have to find a job on my own and make a lot of new decisions for the first time in my life. I learned about some job opportunities and how to get a job from Hanawon (the South Korean governmental resettlement facility) and Hana Center (the local resettlement assistance center run by the South Korean government).
However, I still felt like I didn’t have enough information to make informed decisions about my job and other things about my new life.
I didn’t know a lot of things about South Korean society or the words they used so even when I went on the Internet to find more information on my own, I didn’t know what words I should type in to find out the information I wanted to know. I didn’t know what to look up and look for.
Jihyun How did you try to overcome the challenges?
Sang Hoon: I came to South Korea by myself and I don’t have any family members who came before me, so I didn’t have anyone to ask questions about different jobs. So I humbled myself. I decided to learn from people working at Hanawon, Hana Center, and other organizations. I would ask a lot of questions to them regardless of whether they were younger or older than me. I also carefully listened to advice from other North Korean defectors who resettled before me. Through learning from other people, I became eager and positive. I went wherever I could learn.
Jihyun What were some of the new things you learned and got to do after you resettled to South Korea?
Sang Hoon: Using the Internet! On the Internet, I can get all information I want. It is so convenient.
I love the freedom of getting knowledge...being able to learn and study what I want. When I'm on the Internet, I feel connected with the world.
Jihyun What would you like say to other North Koreans defectors?
Sang Hoon: I want to encourage other North Koreans in the new society to not only enjoy their freedom, abundance, and new life, but to also be responsible for things in their lives. I know some North Korean defectors who only enjoy things, but don’t invest in themselves by studying or working hard. I think we should focus on resettling well in the new society through education or work first before we start enjoying things.
I also like traveling around and having fun, but I am waiting to do more of the fun stuff after I get more settled in my new job and new life. Also having gratitude! I want us to remember when things were so hard back in North Korea. That helps us stay positive and grateful for our new lives and freedom. Let’s not focus on only negative things so much.
Jihyun What would you like to say specifically to other resettled North Koreans who came to South Korea in their late age like you and who think it’s too late for them to start learning and trying new things here?
Sang Hoon: I want to tell them “do you remember when we were risking our lives to escape from North Korea and coming out of China? (I even brought a knife to kill myself just in case I got caught because I knew I would get horribly punished for a long time, maybe the rest of my life for escaping North Korea.) We risked our lives to come here. What are you afraid of? What can you not do in the new society where you don’t have to risk your life anymore?
Nothing can stop us pursuing our dreams and goals in the new society—not even our age!”
Jihyun What do you think of North Korea?
Sang Hoon: North Korea is still my home country where my family still lives and my ancestors are buried. However, because of all the human rights abuses, I don’t really want to think of it.
Jihyun What is your dream or goal in South Korea?
Sang Hoon: After I save up more money, I want to go to grad school. I know it won’t be easy to study in grad school at my age, but I want to challenge myself to try. Also I want to contribute to reunification of North Korea and South Korea with my background, experience, education, and work.
Jihyun What is the most important value in your life?
Sang Hoon: Education. I want to keep learning new things. This is one of the reasons why I want to go to grad school. I just want to continue learning from other people and books so I can keep improving myself. I really love the freedom of being able to learn what I want to learn.
Jihyun What is freedom to you?
Sang Hoon: Freedom is life because we need freedom to live.
Jihyun Lastly, what would you like to say to South Koreans?
Sang Hoon: I want to ask South Korean people to see North Korean people not as second-class citizens, but just people of the same ethnic group—Koreans. Please don’t treat us with stereotypes or stigma. We need more support from you and more people who can understand us. We want to be in harmony with you.
You can help other North Korean refugees escape China and resettle successfully by donating to our work.
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.