SEOUL — Defectors from North Korea have much in common with migrants around the world: they leave their homeland, and often their families, in search of a better life. In the process, they travel great distances and encounter hardships, emotional turmoil and often prejudice in their new countries.
The key difference is that refugees from the Hermit Kingdom are fleeing what is widely regarded as the world’s most oppressive society, where entire families can be punished for even minor transgressions against the state.
“If North Koreans do not follow the policies of the state, the state not only threatens your life, but also the whole family up to three generations,” said Mrs Lee, who defected to South Korea in 2011 from Ryanggang, a province near the Chinese border. “They threaten to kill the family members or put them in prison.”
Their journey typically begins by crossing from border towns into China, where they face the threat of arrest, deportation and torture even before they could continue the journey into South Korea. China has forcibly deported tens of thousands of North Koreans over the years, given its close ties with Pyongyang, according to the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
Once they are able to escape the Chinese dragnet, the North Koreans have to cover a dangerous, circuitous route through Southeast Asian countries before they make it to the South. After paying hefty fees to brokers and smugglers, and surviving the perilous journey, they still face other obstacles.
“Once we come to South Korea, self-esteem is very low because we are starting (to adjust to a very different life) compared with South Koreans,” said Park Dae Heyon, 29, who fled the Hwanghae region in 2007 with his grandfather, mother and younger sister.
“South Koreans seem like they have everything, but...we don’t have anything. We don’t have any connections, especially in this society. We don’t have any background, education.”
Now the chief executive of Woorion, an NGO that helps refugees from the North to resettle in the South, Park added, “Whenever North Korea shoots their missiles or tests nuclear weapons, people just ask (im)polite questions. I think because they view North Koreans as third-class citizens.”
‘I started to wonder: how rich is the South?’
According to statistics from the Ministry of Unification, there were some 32,705 North Korean refugees in the South as of March 2019, of whom more than 70 per cent are women.
But the number of refugees has been steadily falling since 2011, the year Kim Jong Un took power, when 2,706 refugees made the journey south. By 2018, only 1,137 refugees managed to cross over.
Ko Gyoung Bin, president of Korea Hana Foundation, a support group for defectors, told reporters that the drop was due to the improved economic situation in the North, as well as tighter border security between the North and China.
The final reason cited by Ko is tinged with cruel irony. “There are already more than 30,000 North Korean refugees in South Korea sending money to their families in the North. Maybe they would rather lead a decent life in the North instead of risking their lives,” he said.
The money needed for the escape is mostly sent by relatives residing in South Korea, religious groups or human rights organisations, Ko added. “Those who do not have relatives living in South Korea get help from the brokers first, and they pay back after working and making money in South Korea.”
The statistics underscore how hard life can be for North Korean refugees across the 38th parallel: steep school drop-out rates, an unemployment rate of 7 per cent - almost double the figure in South Korea - and a monthly income that is half the national average.
Many also report difficulty in making friends or finding decent jobs, while southerners tend to view them with suspicion and contempt. Some even end up going back to the North.
According to the award-winning book “Nothing To Envy” by journalist Barbara Demick, the most prized qualities in South Korean society are wealth, height, good looks, a university degree and money. Defectors who first arrive in the South often lack all five and invariably struggle.
Then there is the question of culture and temperament.
Park Ju Yeon (not her real name), 43, came to the South in 2002 from Hamgyong Namdo. Her mother, who was originally from China, managed to register her as a Chinese citizen. This enabled her to obtain a visa to come to the South.
Married to a South Korean now, Park is a mother of two young children. She is the president and CEO of My JT Factory, which manufactures custom-made T-shirts, cups and souvenirs and employs nine people.
“The biggest (workplace) issue is communication,” said Park of the issues between her North and South Korean workers.
“North Koreans do not have the freedom to express themselves, or to voice their unhappiness. They are very defensive, and can come across as offensive, while those from the South are more mellow and pleasant.”
‘South Korea is like heaven’
It is telling that all three defectors Yahoo News Singapore spoke to requested that their faces not be shown in photos. They fear that if their identities are known, their relatives who are still living in the North could suffer severe repercussions. The threat is ever-present, even years after they have left a country where the three leaders of the Kim dynasty are regarded as deities and absolute loyalty to the regime is demanded of citizens.
Park Ju Yeon even left her old job at Hanawon, the detention centre where all defectors are first held, because a client she had been helping chose to go back to the North. “I felt unsafe as the client knew everything about me, including my real name,” said Park, whose younger brother is still in the North. She has been unable to contact her brother for the past five years.
Looking back to the time before they came to the south, Park Dae Hyeon and Park Ju Yeon used the same noun to describe what their new home might be like. “We saw from videos and dramas and movies that South Korea is….like heaven,” said the former.
The latter was even more effusive in her praises once she arrived. “My favourite things about the South: security, the freedom to express myself and hard work is rewarded. Here, I can say bad things about the president. But in the North, my neighbour would report me.”
And when asked whether she had faced discrimination in the South, Park Ju Yeon admitted to it but added, “This situation of not being able to adjust to society, that is my fault. We are in a very good system, and it is on you to adjust.”
But what does Park think of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s new policy of rapprochement towards the South and whether it would lead to peace between the two Koreas?
She replied, “Even if I cannot believe, I want to believe it. I really hope he can do it.”
The interviews for this story took place in April and May 2019 and were mostly conducted through an interpreter. Travel to Seoul and the interviews were arranged through the 2019 Jefferson Fellowships, which was organised and largely sponsored by the East-West Centre.