Yoon Ha's Story: Part 3 - Making it to South Korea
After connecting with LiNK’s network, I had to hike up more mountains to get out of China. It was very difficult being eight-months pregnant. My legs hurt and began to swell up a lot. It was really dark and I fell a few times. It was so hard - I was completely exhausted.
There were other North Koreans escaping China with me and they were pulling me and helping me up. Whenever I wanted to give up, they encouraged me.
“We must go. We must go to South Korea to live. To live…”
I felt like it was my responsibility to keep going and to survive for myself and my daughter. The journey getting out of China was so tough. I was worried that my unborn baby might have died because I didn’t feel the baby moving in my stomach for a while.
After many months in government processing and after going through the Hanawon resettlement education center, I was finally able to live freely in South Korea. I was overjoyed.
Thankfully, my baby survived and I had a beautiful baby daughter right after I came to South Korea. More than a year later now, I am thankful that she is growing well and is in good health.
In North Korea, the police oppressed me, keeping me from doing what I needed to do to survive. And in China, the police were trying to find North Korean refugees who were living in hiding. They wanted to send us back to North Korea, even though they knew we would be brutally punished by the regime. Whenever the police came around, I locked all the doors and hid in fear until they left town. So at first, I was scared of the police in South Korea.
I got to know my assigned police officer and realized he is just a person like me and we are not that different. (Every resettled North Korean refugee in South Korea is assigned a police officer for their first five years. They check in on them on a regular basis, and provide basic legal advice and special protection if necessary.)
We talked openly and he shared about the challenges he had when he was younger. He calls me once a week to see how my daughter and I are doing. He has brought us fruit and diapers for my daughter. He is so sweet. He also helped me with paperwork, paying bills, and getting my phone fixed when it broke. I really appreciate him and now he feels like a friend to me.
Thanks to people like him, I can sleep well.
I have been surrounded by many good people from my church community, the Hana Center (the local South Korean government resettlement assistance center) and my designated police officer.
It felt so good to talk freely with many people in my first language--Korean. I had lived in China for many years and when I first went there, I knew no Chinese. I struggled so much with communicating and I couldn’t talk to people freely either because of the fear of getting caught.
Now I can talk to anyone without worrying about getting caught.
I am so glad I came to South Korea. My life here is much better than my life in North Korea or China. I feel very safe and free in South Korea.
I am still learning the meaning of freedom as I experience it in this new society. I can do what I want and go where I want to go. I can go somewhere just to have fun and no one stops me.
That is freedom to me, and I am living it right now.
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.