Conflict & Justice

North Koreans in the south

This woman grew up in North Korea where her teachers taught her to be grateful that she was living in a worker's paradise led by Kim Jong Il. She never questioned that, but her father did. She didn't know what her father was talking about until she left the country the first time to visit relatives in China. She says the way people talked in China shocked her. In China, people actually criticized their leaders' name in public. She says this glimpse of a freer society was revealing and it led her to make the decision not to go back to North Korea. She stayed in China. about seven months ago, she came to South Korea. She came by herself and has no relatives here. It's lonely, she says, she hasn't told her family she left and it's too risky to do so. If North Korean officials find out she's living in South Korea, the government could send her family to prison camps. She changed her name when she moved to South Korea and says she's a bit nervous about speaking to a reporter. She's got a job here and is taking classes but she says living here is full of alienation and hope and that's typical of North defectors living in the South. About a dozen North Koreans attend Sunday church here where the pastor is active with the underground railroad in China, which helps smuggle North Koreans out of the country and eventually into South Korea. This man tells me his story: he worked illegally in China for about a year and then with the help of Christian missionaries he traveled to Vietnam, through Cambodia, and then to Thailand where he applied for and received asylum to South Korea. He says he was blown away by the bright lights and tall buildings of Seoul. He is a bright guy and is optimistic. Unlike many defectors he's got experience in business and is enrolled in college classes. His North Korean accent is actually a liability in South Korea. Through a translator he tells me about applying to 50 South Korean companies and included on his resume that he's North Korean and then didn't get a single job offer. Several employers told him it would look back for them to hire a North Korean, so he tweaked his resume and tried again and then the job offers started rolling in. He is a success story but unfortunately many North Koreans who settle in South Korea are not so successful. This university professor says the North Koreans are outsiders in South Korea which is a country of connections, and North Koreans don't have connection. It does appear to take extraordinary resolve for North Korean refugees just to get out of the starting gate here. This woman wears many hats at this restaurant in Seoul where she takes orders and serves and does other business here. Her journey from North to South: she was a broadcaster in North Korea. It was a steady job but her family suffered one tragedy after another: her husband and then son died, and then her father. She was picked up for trying to defect and lived through eight months of torture in a North Korean prison camp. In 2004 she escaped through China with her daughter and arrived in South Korea later that year. She says the best thing about life here is she can work and buy food to live on and doesn't have to starve here. The hardest thing is the discrimination. Sometimes they try to leave without paying but in South Korea she's got hope and that keeps her going.

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