North Korea defector dares to dream in Seoul


Yongwang Subway station is also an atomic shelter, April 2, 2011 in Pyongyang, North Korea.


Feng Li

SEOUL, South Korea — I defected in 2006, just as I was becoming a young adult with hopes and dreams for the future, but also with the feeling that North Korea was holding me back.

I come from an underprivileged background. My dad was Korean-Japanese who had moved to the North from Japan. People with those backgrounds have a hard time in the North, so I realized quickly that I would stand no chance of succeeding in North Korean society, where only the privileged get to do what they want.

I started to think about living in another country — somewhere I could live a freer life, like South Korea or the United States.

I think I made the right decision to defect. In South Korea, anyone can succeed as long as they work hard enough. It was my desire for that kind of life that made me defect.

One night I paid off the border guards, crossed the Tumen River and went to Shenyang. Then my mother left my father and brother behind and joined me in China. My mother, who was of Korean ethnicity but born in Japan, said she wanted to go back to the country of her birth.

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But I disagreed and said I preferred the US or South Korea. My mother didn't want to go to the US because she didn't speak English, so we agreed to head to South Korea. We stayed in Inner Mongolia for about six months before arriving in South Korea in 2008.

The North Korean authorities keep a close watch on people, and when they discovered that two members of our family were missing they guessed that we had defected to South Korea or Japan.

My brother had just completed his military service, but I found out later that my father was arrested and tortured. The police asked him if he too planned to take the rest of his family out of North Korea. I learned later that he died ... I was heartbroken and still feel awful when I think about him. I blame myself for what happened to him, that's why I have to succeed here ... for his sake.

My brother is back in the army so it is almost impossible for him to defect. I heard he's getting married soon. I wish him a happy life. I miss him, and my mother cries every day because of him.

When I was in North Korea, I studied music and wanted to become a TV announcer or singer. But even if I had been talented enough I wouldn't have been able to do those jobs because of my background. To succeed in North Korea you have to have perfect revolutionary credentials, but our family's roots were in Japan.

I hated the fact that I had no freedom. I couldn't even do something as innocent as watch an American movie openly because the government wouldn't allow it. I couldn't stand the fact that I was not allowed to do anything I liked.

I loved Western films, like the James Bond series. I saw how the characters traveled around the world doing as they pleased, but we weren't even allowed to leave the country. Through those movies I learned about the freedom that I'd never have if I stayed in the North.

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In a way, I shouldn't have watched them, because it made my life there all the more miserable. If I'd done as I was told and not watched them I might have continued to live in North Korea, oblivious to what I was missing. That's the case for almost all North Koreans — they stay there because they have no idea about the world outside.

Since I arrived in South Korea I've come to understand that the North is a strange, eccentric country. I want to know exactly how it is that the North Korea regime has managed to brainwash so many people, which is why I am studying social sciences at university.

I'd like to be a reporter after I graduate, a special reporter with expertise on North Korea. I'm working really hard to make that happen.

I once thought I had overcome the biggest hurdle by defecting. I even experienced what it was like to be on the verge of death. When I first came to South Korea I was young and not afraid of anything, because I thought nothing could compare with the nightmare I experienced when defecting from North Korea. But I was wrong. I am safe here, and my safety is important, but I now face other psychological problems.

North Korean defectors are a minority here, and minorities in any country have difficulties. The way some South Korean people look at me is influenced by bad experiences they have had with North Korean defectors in the past. Those defectors set a bad example and make it harder for those of us who come later.

Some people ask us why we even bother going to university, just because some defectors drop out of school. But we're not all like that. Some North Korean students work very hard and feel hurt when someone points the finger at them. In that sense, I find the attitude of some South Koreans very discouraging.

I think all defectors go through an identity crisis. Are we North Korean or South Korean? I guess we are the victims of a divided nation, but looking at it in a different way, it's good that we were born in North Korea, because we experienced something no one else has.

Unification is a mission for all Korean people. It's something we have to face up to whether we like the idea or not. I believe that North Korean defectors living in here can act as mediators between the two countries. We can play a leading role in shaping the future.

When I first arrived here I had a tough time. I experienced discrimination and went through an identity crisis. But now I'm learning to see things in a more positive light.

This testimony was edited by Justin McCurry.