For Min Sung, the hardest part about escaping North Korea was leaving his family behind. He couldn’t tell his parents about his plans to leave, because he knew they’d try to stop him but the situation in North Korea had gotten so bad that he had to flee. The day before he left, he witnessed a public execution in his town. He remembers some of his friends in the army returned home because they weren’t getting enough food and his neighbor across the street died of hunger. Tired of living in a of place hunger, fear, and limited opportunities, and wanting to see the outside world, he escaped.
Min Sung is a sometimes shy, but gentle and generous person who has worked hard to achieve his dreams since resettling in South Korea. In 2013, Min Sung participated in our Study Abroad & Career Development (SACD) Program. He stayed with an American family in San Francisco and took intensive English-language classes to improve his language skills.
Min Sung used to think he was a bad conversationalist and didn’t like talking to people, but now he feels that he can articulate his thoughts better and is more comfortable talking to others. When describing his experience, he said, “Before I went to the U.S., I was pessimistic and plagued with the thinking that I couldn’t turn my ambitions into reality, but now I’m more optimistic and confident that I will accomplish my goals and do the things I aspire to do.”
Last spring, after extensive preparation in math and English, he was accepted to university for engineering. His classes have been challenging, but he studies hard and has recently started to work with a tutor who helps him in difficult subjects like math and physics. We expect great things are in Min Sung’s future because of his strong effort and drive to succeed.
Our resettlement coordinator Jihyun recently met up with Min Sung to talk about his life in South Korea.
Q: What is the best thing that happened this week?
A: A few days ago, I got a phone call from my cousin who is still in Hanawon (South Korean resettlement center for North Korean defectors). She recently came to South Korea through LiNK. The call from her made me so happy.
I went to visit her a few weeks ago. It was my first time seeing her in more than 10 years. Since she is still a teenager, last time I saw her in North Korea was when she was a little kid, so she didn’t really remember a lot of things about me and neither did I about her. Because of that, it was a little bit awkward during my visit and we didn’t really talk that much although I was so happy to see her again.
After the visit, I was hoping that she would call me often so we could continue getting to know each other but I didn’t receive any calls from her for a while. I thought maybe either she didn’t like me or felt awkward talking to me. I was kinda disappointed.
But she called me a few days ago and it made my day. This time we had a great conversation. On the phone I got to encourage her about resettling in South Korea. You know, I don’t have any siblings here in South Korea. I really want to be a good cousin for her and share my resettlement experience and tips with her. I am so happy that my cousin is here. Thank you LiNK and LiNK supporters.
Q: What was the most difficult thing when you got out of Hanawon?
A: When I just graduated from Hanawon, I was a teenager and had only 200,000 won (188 USD). I didn’t know what to do because I was too young and didn’t have a lot.
I actually decided to work right away because I didn’t want to rely on the low-income benefit that was given at the time (380,000 won per month / 357 USD) if I didn’t work. You know, I didn’t come to South Korea to live on that money. Before I came to South Korea, I had a lot of goals and dreams about my new life here. However when I was about to graduate from Hanawon, I started to realize the gap between my expectations and reality.
I initially wanted to start going to school, as I came here as a teenager, but I couldn’t go to school due to my circumstances. The low-income benefit was just enough to make ends meet, but not enough to do what I wanted to do. So I started working only one week after I graduated from Hanawon. Studying was important, but I just wanted to be more independent and learn more about the society by working.
At first, I was working at a construction supply store. The biggest challenge that I had working there was communicating with people. I had a hard time understanding people at work because the way they talked was different than the way North Koreans did. Sometimes I had to answer phone calls when other people were busy. At first I had no idea of what people were saying on the phone. You know, sometimes it is more difficult to understand people on the phone than in person. On top of that I didn’t know many words from the construction field. Sometimes people on the phone got really frustrated because I had to keep asking them to repeat. It was very stressful for me.
In general many resettled North Korean refugees have trouble communicating with South Koreans because of a lot of English loanwords that are commonly used in South Korea. For words from the construction field and English loanwords that I didn’t know, I started doing online research to find out meaning of those words after work because I didn’t want to bother the people at work by asking them so many questions.
After working at the construction supply company for a few months, I worked at some other manufacturing factories for about nine months. I was so glad that I could make money and send some to my family that was still in North Korea. However when I was working at those factories, my work was very tedious so I didn’t feel like I was fulfilling my full potential.
I started thinking that maybe I should check out some other career paths and realized that getting more education can help me to invest in myself and get more opportunities. So I started applying for universities in South Korea and also applied for LiNK’s Study Abroad & Career Development (SACD) Program in early 2013 while I was still working.
Q: What was your biggest challenge in North Korea? What’s your biggest challenge in South Korea?
A: In North Korea, my family financially struggled a lot for a long time. Both of my parents went to college in the 90s, but they didn’t get good jobs because in the mid 90s the long-lasting famine started in North Korea and it made many people not only starve, but also lose their stable jobs. Also my parents couldn’t get the jobs they wanted because of their low songbun class. After both of my parents lost their jobs, they started selling stuff and farming and I often had to help them instead of going to school. I felt so bad to see my parents financially struggling a lot and working day and night to support me.
Besides having to help my parents, I also didn’t want to go to school that much when we were financially struggling. The schools that I went to constantly told students to bring money and other stuff to give to soldiers in the local military base and to renovate the school building and other local facilities. Of course my family didn’t have anything that I could bring to the school. If I didn’t bring things, other kids at the school started looking down on me and even bullied me. Also the teachers called out me and some other students who couldn’t bring things requested by the school in front of everyone in my classroom and that was very humiliating. So whenever the school told the students to bring anything, I decided not to go to school. It naturally led me to not focus on my studies.
A few years later, my family’s financial situation got better because we started getting help from our relatives in China. Even then, I spent most of my time playing basketball for my school basketball team so I didn’t get to study a lot. And soon after, I graduated from high school.
I didn’t study hard enough in high school so I couldn’t go to college. Since I didn’t go to college, I was supposed to serve in the North Korean military for 10 years, which I didn’t want to do at all. I didn’t have many other options. If I didn’t serve in the military, the only thing I could do in North Korea was selling and buying goods at illegal market places. However, that was not what I wanted to do and I didn’t want to take a risk of having a criminal record in case I got caught. The only thing I wanted to do at that point was to see the outside world, so I decided to escape from North Korea to China.
In South Korea, besides communication issues due to differences between North Korea and South Korea, relationships with people at work and school have been challenging for me.
I remember when I started working with many other people at a factory, I had trouble getting to know people there. Later I ended up getting close to some of them, who helped me to adjust to the new work environment and also learn about the South Korean society in general. Now, I know it is very important to connect with people and it greatly helps people like me to resettle to a new society. We can learn from each other through relationships. Connection, willpower, and effort are important for resettlement.
Q: Who has been the biggest help to you since you arrived in South Korea?
A: Not many others except for LiNK. Although, I’ve been getting to know people from my church. I know they are really nice people and trying to help me so much. However sometimes I have a hard time connecting with them because they often talk to me about things related to their Christian faith. They still give me good advice and are good company when I feel lonely. I understand that it is their calling to help me get familiar with their faith though. I just want more people in my life who can share life with me regardless of religion.
Q: What advice would you give to a friend who just arrived in South Korea?
A: From my experience I would say, instead of listening to other people’s advice all the time, including advice from other defectors who came to South Korea before you, you should also experience things for yourself. What you hear from others might not work for you even if it works for them. Of course, some advice from other people is very helpful and valuable. Remember you can only refer to others’ advice carefully and should experience things on your own. Their advice cannot experience your life for you.
Also I want to tell my friend that no work is easy and don’t just quit quickly after you start working because you face a problem. Try to endure it and give yourself enough time to get used to the work and environment. In order to get used to new work or new things, consistency is very important. Plus, think long term when you are planning things out. Don’t change your mind every time you hear other people’s different advice.
Lastly, be careful when doing anything in this new society, because you don’t know a lot about the society and its system yet. Even when you are making a small decision, you should still give it enough thought.
Q: How often do you think about North Korea? What do you think about?
A: I miss North Korea whenever I think of it. Whether the country is poor or not, I want to go back there because that is where I am from and I still have family members there. It has been a long time since I left them. I miss my parents so much. I think of them a lot when I am by myself on holidays.
I hope the North Korean society will at least open up soon so I can go see my family and friends there, although reunification might take much longer.
Sometimes when I think about North Korea and South Korea reuniting, I think about starting a business based on my business ideas from my experience in South Korea. I feel like my business there will be very successful and I will make a lot of money.