Our friend Joo Yang recently took part in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit. Read a selection of the Q&A below or click here to check it out in its entirety.
Q: Many people who travel to North Korea as tourists believe that, by engaging with North Koreans, they are able to humanize foreigners and perhaps help change North Korean’s minds about them. However, others believe tourism there is wrong because much of the money goes to support an oppressive government. In your opinion, do you think that tourism in North Korea is a positive force or a negative one?
A: Thanks for your question! Firstly, I think if there are chances for North Korean citizens to meet foreigners then tourism can be a good thing. This is because North Koreans are curious about foreigners, and if they can interact then they can feel more friendly towards them, and see them as normal humans. However I’m also personally not comfortable with the North Korean government making foreign currency from it. So there are pros and cons. So, I hope that if people are visiting North Korea and paying their way, then maybe they can make more requests to the government and see more than just the ‘good course’ around Pyongyang and so on.
Q: Do the people of North Korea really believe that Kim Jong Il and his father and grandfather actually have superhuman powers or do they just say they do out of fear?
A: I think that people believe it kind of like people believe in the bible. Well, that’s the case for children. But when you grow up, you realise those stories do not make sense, but you still have to memorize it well for the school tests in order to graduate from school well. More recently, amongst close friends, people will complain that this kind of ideological education will not actually help you in your life. I felt like that too.
Q: You say that your parents defected first. Did the North Korean government know about this and did you face any repercussions?
A: In North Korea, it’s very hard to know the weather forecast because of frequent power cuts, unlike in South Korea. So we made a cover story that my father had died at sea and my mother and other family members had left our house to try to find any remains of my father. So I was in our house my myself, but the secret police came to ask me questions. I stuck to the story and told them that my family had become separated, and stonewalled their questions. I knew that the secret police used people in the neighborhood to monitor my behavior, but I just pretended not to notice and carried on living my life.
Q: I have seen many article detailing North Korea’s foreign policy, military capabilities, and many loud public pronouncements. An unfortunate side of those “big picture” articles, is that the simplest aspects of North Korean culture get lost in those stories. I am sure many here will ask you about war and hunger, so on a lighter note: How are North Korean weddings celebrated?
A: North Korean women really want to enjoy romance. In North Korea, we wear traditional Korean-style clothes for wedding dresses (Joson-ot, or “hanbok” in South Korea), but more recently because of the effects of foreign media, some North Korean women want to wear a white wedding dress at their wedding! But that has not been possible in North Korea yet. So people are adapting the traditional style wedding dress and making it look more beautiful. Another thing is that normally the wedding ceremony is done in the house of the groom and the bride, once each. But if it’s too expensive to get all the food for that, then sometimes they combine it and just do it once in one side’s house.
Q: What was it like to go from a world with very little of today’s modern technology to a world with the Internet and its capabilities to connect you with people and information all over the world?
A: First it was kind of like arriving in the modern world in a time machine. There were so many things I didn’t know, but as I learnt one thing after another by trying them, that was really fun. Even typing on a computer was really novel and fun at first. It’s been three years, but even now there’s still a lot of new things.
Q: Since crossing the border into South Korea, have you encountered any negativity or prejudice from the South Korean people?
A: South Korean people can be quite discriminating, for instance against Korean-Chinese people living in South Korea. When I speak, I have a dialect and to many South Koreans it sounds like how Korean-Chinese people from Northeast China speak. Sometimes people have asked if I’m from there, and I felt negativity in their tone. Also, one time my auntie was riding in a taxi when the driver asked where she was from. When she replied “North Korea”, he stopped the car and asked her to get out! Even so, for me personally, I think that being open with where I am from helps me to adapt to life here in the long run.
Q: I was a volunteer at the Olympic Village for the London 2012 Olympics, and it was really curious to see the many different cultures and personalities from the countries around the World. I remember seeing a few North Korean athletes around the village, and the only way I could describe them are zombies. The looked dead behind the eyes, as if all the personality had been sapped out of them. My question is: When you lived in North Korea, what was the general perception about the people living in the rest of the World?
A: I can understand that you would see the North Korean athletes as like zombies. It would be very risky for them to show curiosity about their surroundings when they are abroad, and that fear makes people very stiff. When I was in North Korea I didn’t think of foreigners as bad. I thought they would be nice. I wanted to meet foreigners too. But you can’t express those thoughts in public. When I was in Chongjin [a city in the Northeast] I saw a Russian man once, and I was so fascinated that I stared at him until he was so far away that he disappeared as a small spot.
Q: Could you share a personal moment from your past that, looking back now, influenced you (and your parents) to defect? I imagine that the incredible dangers associated with attempting to flee would require some serious impetus to overcome.
A: My grandfather always told us that our generation must find freedom. And he told us about modern technology and advanced countries. Also, my father listened to foreign radio illegally since I was 9 years old. That had a really big influence. South Korean radio, VOA, RFA… we could hear news including news from people who had defected first so we got courage from that and were able to plan our defection strategy.
Q: There must have been a ton of (obvious) reasons why you defected, but is there anything you miss from North Korea?
A: There’s lots! haha. First, my friends. My neighbors were like family back home too, so I miss them. Also from my hometown, the air, the water, even the smell of the earth.
I miss all of those things.
Q: Hello, Ms. Yang. Firstly, I would like to thank you for doing this AMA, by doing so, you are giving people a rare opportunity to see what it’s actually like within the DPRK, and not anything skewed by the media. As for my question: What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to adjust to? How shocked were you when you realized the DPRK propaganda was (for the most part), entirely false?
A: Hello! Thanks for your question. There were a lot of new culture shocks to get used to and understand, for instance toilets and ATMs, and using an electronic card to ride the subway… Escalators, elevators, all of those things. haha. And in South Korea they use a lot of ‘Konglish’, or borrowed words, so I had to get used to that.
Q: Wow. Toilets? That’s surprising. I thought North Koreans (for the most part), had running water. Does it only exist in Pyongyang?
A: In North Korea, I never saw a sit-down toilet. We always used squat toilets. So when I first saw a sit-down toilet when I was in China, I didn’t know what to do. I actually climbed up and used it as if it was a squat toilet. When I was in the South Korean National Intelligence Service debriefing facility [that all NKorean defectors go through] the South Korean officials used to plead with the defectors not to climb up on the toilet seat, but many defectors still wanted to because they felt they couldn’t go to the toilet otherwise! hahaha. If you ask any North Korean defector, they will also know what you mean if you say “bidet shower”. That’s because we’ve all experienced making the mistake of using a bidet wrong the first time we saw one, and getting water all over ourselves. I did that once too. But now we have a bidet in my house!
Q: What kind of feelings did you have when you arrived in South Korea and saw the quality of life that many people have? How did you adjust to this? I’m most interested in the psychological experiences someone goes through in a new environment.
A: When I got here I felt like South Koreans could eat the kind of food that North Koreans eat on special occasions (명절, festival days) even every day. Most ordinary North Koreans eat ‘corn-rice’ as their staple food, but that is rough. But on special days like Kim Il-sung’s birthday some people can eat white rice. In fact some people can’t even eat white rice on those special days. But in South Korea, even homeless people eat white rice! As for how I adjusted… well it tastes pretty good, so I’m adjusting well! Even though sometimes I miss North Korean food too…
Q: During your time in North Korea did you ever view any western media, like movies or tv shows? If so, what ones?
A: Yes, I watched a lot! I don’t remember all the titles, but in particular I remember 007 (James Bond) and Drop Zone. Also Charlie’s Angels. And The Count of Monte Cristo. etc. I watched a lot. haha. We used to think that western films were somehow more advanced than South Korean films, so if you watched them you would talk about that with your other friends who had seen the same films.
Q: Today, June 4th, marks the 25th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square Protest in which hundreds of students were murdered for wanting pro-democracy. What are your thoughts on it since protesting and going against the government in North Korea is forbidden?
A: Even though I was not born at the time, I knew about it when I was in North Korea too. I found out about it in the 2000s since people talked about I saw a film about it and people talked about it in North Korea too. I also heard about coup attempts in North Korea from adults when I was young, but they were all discovered by Kim Jong-il and the leaders were executed and others were sent to political prison camps. So people are very scared about getting involved in anything like that.
Q: For the most part we as outsiders here about Pyongyang this and Pyongyang that. Are regional politics still at play in NK? And what do people from the countryside think of Pyongyangers?
A: Countryside people think of Pyongyangites like people from a completely different country! Its known that only the people who have been recognised by the Party as the most loyal are allowed to live there. For instance when we travel, if you want to go to Pyongyang, you have to get a special travel permit. To my memory, normal travel permits have one red line, but the ones you need to get to Pyongyang have two red lines.
Q: Do you have close relationships with other defectors you have met? Have you found that your experiences in North Korea were significantly different from theirs?
A: Yes I have a lot of North Korea-born friends here. I don’t have school friends from South Korea because I didn’t go to school here, so I made a lot of friends amongst North Korean defectors who are the same age as me. I do also have South Korean friends as well. Amongst North Korean defectors, there are of course similarities in all our experiences, but many differences too. In particular, the people who have come here the most recently for instance those who left last year, talk about the new changes in North Korean society since I left, so I’m very keen to meet them. For instance more recent defectors tell us how they were able to watch South Korean media so soon after its release in South Korea, and are watching more varied media than when I was there. So I really like meeting North Koreans who left more recently.
Q: I’m a member of a LiNK rescue team on a college campus and I’m so excited to see you on reddit! You say you were involved in private business, I was wondering if you could talk more about the 장마당 markets and private enterprise in North Korea. I’ve read that mostly women run the markets & businesses, is that true? What roles do you see women having in the grassroots changes in North Korea?
A: North Koreans say that in the jangmadang, the North Korean markets, you can find everything apart from a cat’s horn. Cats don’t have horns right?! It means you can find everything. haha. It’s right that it’s mostly women doing business in the markets. But there are a few men as well, but if they do it often they do illegal cross-border trade on a big scale. I think that women doing private business will play a big role in grassroots change in the future. They also have better access to information than most. North Korean people also say that these women are more ‘awake’ than most citizens, so I think they will have a big role to play.
Q: I have North Korean friends and they have many names from their time spent in North Korea, China, South Korea, and other countries. Do most defectors find it difficult to keep up with these different names/cultures? How do you manage so many changes and stay positive?
A: Yes, there are times when people get confused because of their different names, and funny episodes because of that. It’s the same for me too, I have my original name but I’ve used a different name publicly so much that I don’t even know if I could go back to my original name if I wanted!
I think I became a lot more positive after I came to South Korea. Even though I’ve faced a lot of changes since leaving North Korea, those things are not dangerous compared to life in North Korea, so I think I can enjoy everything here!