Over the next couple months, we’ll be visiting with several of our North Korean friends to get updates on their lives since they’ve resettled, which will be published on the blog.
For the first update, we’re introducing Hye Won, a vibrant, smart young woman who makes friends easily and works hard for her dreams. Hye Won was relatively young when she left North Korea, but she connects with her North Korean identity and remembers the hardships she endured there. Even now, years after she resettled in South Korea, she still notices major cultural differences between the two countries.
Always loving to read and eager to learn, she got accepted by a prestigious university in South Korea. She’ll soon graduate with a degree in political science and international studies and plans to work for an organization like the United Nations to help refugees. Last year, she participated in our Study Abroad & Career Development (SACD) Program in New York City. There, she was able to take intensive English language classes and job shadow a mentor who helped her figure out more about a future career helping others.
Our resettlement coordinator Jihyun recently spoke with Hye Won about her life in South Korea.
Q: What is it like living freely in South Korea?
A: I can study whatever I want, whereas college students in North Korea can study only what the North Korean regime allows them to study. I can even learn stuff that criticizes the South Korean government, which is impossible at all in North Korea. Freedom of learning whatever I want to learn is what I appreciate most.
Of course since I love traveling, being able to travel wherever I want is another freedom I really enjoy!
Having a lot of freedom in South Korea that I couldn’t have in North Korea also brings me more responsibilities. Especially, in order to manage and properly enjoy my freedom, I should make my own choices. For example, because I have a limited amount of money, if I want to travel, I might have to give up on buying clothes that I want to wear. Sometimes, decision making can be difficult. Back in North Korea, a lot of things were planned and a lot of decisions were made by the regime. Whether or not I would have to serve in the military service, what kind of school I could go to, and what kind of job I could have were all decided by the regime, depending on my Songbun class. So here in the free society, I have to think so much more for myself and make decisions on my own, which is sometimes a little pressuring, but I am getting better at making decisions for myself.
Q: What advice would you give to a friend who just arrived in South Korea?
A: Go to college. While you are in college, you can learn more about yourself and what you want to do in the future. Of course, it helps you to learn more about the South Korean society and eventually resettle better here.
Q: What is the best thing that happened to you this week?
A: I moved to a house where I live with four other roommates and the house is very close from the school. Now I don’t have to spend two hours commuting round-trip everyday. I am so happy that I live with my friends and am so close to the campus. This morning, because I had extra time, I made breakfast for my friends and had tea while reading a book. It was so good!
Q: Have you helped any other defectors settle in South Korea?
A: Since I am still in school I haven’t been able to help other defectors financially, but I have been volunteering at a local children’s welfare center where I teach English to resettled North Korean Elementary school kids and South Korean kids from low-income families.
Through volunteering with the kids, I have been able to learn about some of their struggles. When the South Korean media talks about North Korea a lot of times they show people starving and begging for food. After South Korean kids see those things, they ask the resettled North Korean kids if they were begging for food like what they saw on TV news. Whenever the kids get such questions, they feel ashamed.
Q: What was your biggest challenge in North Korea?
A: I didn’t know that I had a lot of difficulties in North Korea until I came to South Korea where I could do many more things than I could when I was in North Korea. There, my family had financial difficulty so sometimes I had to help my mom with her work instead of going to school. I really wanted to travel a lot, but I couldn’t because of my family’s financial struggles and travel restrictions.
My family’s financial difficulty affected us a lot. My parents fought often because of the financial issues, so that caused me to stress out a lot. I often felt lonely because I didn’t feel connected with my parents because they were too busy figuring out our financial situation.
Q: What’s your biggest challenge in South Korea?
A: In South Korea, because we don’t know many people, it is hard for us to find people who can share useful information with us and give us advice. I know many South Korean students around my age can ask even their parents for advice. However, since my parents are also from North Korea and came to South Korea around the same time as me, it’s hard to get advice about the South Korean society and resettlement from them.
I think I need more people who can mentor and give me good advice especially for my career since I am going to graduate from college and start looking for a job in the near future.
Q: Have your perceptions of Americans and South Koreans changed?
A: I didn’t know much about South Korean people in North Korea. When I was hiding in China, however, I heard from some other North Koreans that there would be a lot of discrimination against resettled North Korean people in South Korea. Well personally I haven’t faced much discrimination here yet.
However, my perception on America changed so much after I met LiNK staff and its supporters. Back in North Korea I was taught that Americans were so bad and called Yankees. Actually I didn’t know the exact meaning of the term, Yankee but thought Yankee was a term to describe bad people.
Q: What was the most difficult thing when you arrived?
A: I remember when I first arrived in South Korea, I was still a teenager. After other North Korean refugees and I got out of the airport, we were transported to Hanawon, the South Korean government resettlement facility, by bus. On the bus what I was seeing through the window was so different than what I used to see in North Korea. Honestly I was getting so overwhelmed and very concerned because I was not sure if I could adjust to the new society.
Q: What is something that you started to do in South Korea that you never did before?
A: Swimming! Although I don’t go swimming on a regular basis anymore, I remember when I first started swimming at a recreational center near my house. I was so excited for it! In North Korea not many people can go swimming at nice swimming pools.
I also started learning how to play guitar after I came to South Korea. Back in North Korea I really wanted to learn to play guitar, but my family couldn’t afford to buy me a guitar.
Q: How often do you think about North Korea? What do you think about?
A: Since I came to South Korea with my family, I get to think about North Korea quite often whenever I talk with my family about our hometown. When that happens, I usually think of things I used to do as a little kid with my friends like playing games. Actually, I recently got to play some of the games with other resettled North Korean students who go to the same school as me. We are part of a resettled North Korean students association on campus. We had such a great time playing the games, such as group jumping rope and North Korean style dodgeball that we don’t get to play often anymore.
I don’t really try to think about North Korea, but when I am by myself or it is a holiday that I celebrated in North Korea, I sometimes just randomly start thinking about North Korea.