Unexpected Lives: North Korean Refugees in South Korea

20060424_DandongExplore056F_950pxwide

Lee Kyung-Hee sits on the floor in a sparsely-decorated apartment, just thinking: about her uncertain future, about her inability to find steady work, about the circumstances that have led to her present life. It’s daytime but the floor-to-ceiling blinds are drawn and the overhead light is on, casting a yellowish glow over the room. A Korean comedy show flickers on the television but Kyung-Hee stares and does not comprehend.

Thinking is how Kyung-Hee, a North Korean by birth, has passed much of her time since coming to Seoul, South Korea, in 2004. She sought a better life for her and her 22-year old daughter, Mi-Young. Instead she has found isolation, depression, health issues and financial problems. Kyung-Hee, 54, feels alone even among other former North Koreans living in the neighborhood, which is home to the second-highest concentration of defectors living in Seoul.

“They have daughters, sons, husbands, good lives and money,” she said, forgetting for a moment about her daughter. She shakes her head, animating her short black curls. “I’m jealous. Among all other defectors, I’m alone.”

Though she feels alone, Kyung-Hee is one of over 8,000 former North Koreans living in South Korea. The number of defectors coming to South Korea has been rising for the past five years and brings to the fore the sensitive issue of how to socially integrate people who share a recent history but have grown culturally apart from their South Korean counterparts. The experiences of this growing minority are a microcosm of what could happen in the event of unification, which many experts say will lead to thousands of northerners migrating to South Korea.

North Koreans arrive in South Korea often expecting to feel a bond with South Koreans; the north and south share historical and cultural ties that date back thousands of years. But for many, the reality is different and the adjustment is hard.

A growing minority

Between the end of the Korean War and the end of 1989, 607 North Koreans came to South Korea. Most were welcomed as heroes who defied the evil communists intent on destroying the south. South Koreans called these North Koreans “gui-seun-yeong-sa” or “freedom fighters following the righteous path.” The government lavished them with gifts and money.

But over the past five years, the number of North Koreans coming to South Korea each year has risen sharply and caused a shift in South Korean society’s attitude toward them. The number of arriving North Koreans rose from 583 people in 2001, to 1,139 people in 2002, to a one-year peak of 1,894 people in 2004. Almost 600 people entered South Korea between January 2006 and the end of April 2006. The South Korean government expects that in the next two to three years, 10,000 North Koreans a year will enter South Korea.

The sharp increase in arrivals is due to ongoing North Korean food shortages, a breakdown in North Korea’s social surveillance system and a rise in the number of non-governmental organizations (NGO) workers and missionaries helping North Koreans who have escaped north out of their country to China. Leaving North Korea is dangerous as it usually involves bribing a border guard swimming or wading across a river and then hiding in China.

Although South Koreans understand the situation and see why North Koreans would want to leave their country, many South Koreans harbor an extreme dislike for the northerners living in their borders. In the view of South Koreans, North Koreans live off the South Korean government and show little gratitude.

“As the number of North Koreans has increased, South Koreans have had more opportunities to have contact with them and see they are very different in attitude, work behavior and accent,” said Choy Yong Seok, deputy director of the Ministry of Unification’s policy agenda management team. “South Koreans feel North Koreans are very dependent and don’t show appreciation for the help given to them.”

North Koreans spend their first three months in South Korea at Hanawon, a government-run facility where they are debriefed and taught Korean history and cultural norms. They are also taught skills such as how to open a bank account, how to use a computer and how to find a job. Then, for their first year in South Korea they receive a yearly government stipend of between $10,000 to $15,000 in monthly or quarterly installments. The government also gives them job training, educational fees assistance and an apartment where they have to pay rent but not the deposit (deposits in South Korea start at about $20,000 for a one-bedroom apartment).

“Even South Koreans have a hard time living since the economic situation is not so good. They think that if the government has money to support North Koreans, why don’t they help me?” said Choy.

The answer has much to do with the ways in which South and North Korean society have diverged over the past 50 years. After years of living in one of the world’s most isolated communist nations, many North Koreans have trouble coping in a competitive and capitalist society. Indeed, many lack any marketable work skills. In addition, northerners often face discrimination and questioning because of their accents and “strange” Korean vocabulary, which has grown markedly different from the Korean spoken in the south since the division of the Korean peninsula.

With these strikes against them, people who found the strength to leave North Korea, evade authorities in China and make their way to South Korea sometimes become listless, disenchanted and meek in their new country.

“They’re docile (here in South Korea) because it’s a dominant culture. They’re relatively marginalized and that tends to make them docile,” said Tim Peters, founder and director of Helping Hands Korea, a non-profit Christian organization that helps North Koreans get out of China and eventually into South Korea.

Further complicating their adjustment is the memory of difficult experiences in China and the sadness of leaving behind family and friends they may never see again. It’s no wonder, then, that many suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome and other health problems.

“They’re more likely (than South Koreans) to say they have heart problems, headaches, backaches and pains,” said psychologist Lee Ha Young. She counseled North Korean defectors for Doctors Without Borders before its South Korean mission closed in the spring of 2006. “But if you go through talking with them you learn all these things are related to psychology.”

New policies

A survey published by the Seoul city government in December 2005 found that about 90% of North Koreans living in Seoul are unemployed. Choy at the Ministry of Unification said that number may be closer to 20%-30% when taking into account people who lie about their status to keep receiving government welfare. Either way, the number is higher than the 3.7% unemployment rate reported for all of South Korea in 2005.

Critics have said for years that the South Korean government should focus less on financial support of North Koreans and more on job skills training. It seems the government finally agrees. Beginning later this year, North Koreans arriving at Hanawon, the resettlement facility, will spend half of their three months there receiving job training. In another program begun in late 2005, the South Korean government pays employers to hire North Koreans, who have been stereotyped as unmotivated workers.

The Ministry of Unification has also made it a top priority this year to educate South Koreans about North Koreans. Among its initiatives is pushing usage of the term “sae-teo-min,” which means “newly-settled people” to describe North Korean defectors, instead of “tal-buk-cha,” which means escapee from the north” and has been in common use for 10 years.

But even as the government works to improve North Koreans’ lives and change society’s attitude toward them, some people believe it is North Koreans themselves who need to change their attitudes about what to expect from South Korea.

“You have to forget the past and start over,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University in Seoul. “I think they (North Koreans) have to work in 3D jobs – dangerous, dirty and difficult jobs. The first generation has to work hard so the next generation will have better opportunities. But they (the first generation) think that when they come to South Korea their happiness starts. They misunderstand capitalist society.”

Lee Kyung-Hee’s Story

Kyung-Hee was born in what is now North Korea in 1951 during the chaos of the Korean War. By the war’s end, her soldier father was in the south while she and her mom, older brother and older sister were in a city near the border with China. Only after Kyung-Hee came to South Korea in 2004 did she find out that the father she never knew died years ago.

Kyung-Hee, a petite woman with a thin face and piercing black eyes, grew up happy. She married, had a daughter named Mi-Young and then lived alone after her husband died. She worked as a seamstress. She and her family celebrated her mother’s 60th birthday, a landmark birthday in Korean society. But then came the famine of the 1990s hit. There were many days when she didn’t eat. Kyung-Hee became convinced that life in China would be better. So she packed up her daughter, crossed the border in the dead of night and lived in China for the next five years.

Like many other North Korean women in China, Kyung-Hee married an ethnic Korean-Chinese man to guarantee her survival. She worked on a farm. Life was OK. However, the constant threat that the North Korean police would find her and take her and Mi-Young back to North Korea made her decide she should go to South Korea. Kyung-Hee paid $5,000 to a broker, sent Mi-Young to South Korea in 2003 and followed her daughter a year later.

A little over a year since first arriving in South Korea, the reality of life is bearing down on Kyung-Hee. She has unexplained aches and pains in her body. She takes five medicines a day and can’t find a job. She feels the ability to do housework is one of her few skills. She briefly worked as a call center operator, but she can’t find a permanent job. The lack of work feeds Kyung-Hee’s depression and her worries about the future. Her government stipend ran out last year.

“I’m getting old, so where will my money come from? It’s hard because I’m older so I can’t find a job,” she said. “I’m worried.”

For now, she is supported by Mi-Young, who works at a restaurant. While Kyung-Hee’s life stands still, Mi-Young’s life moves forward. She recently had plans to marry her South Korean boyfriend and move south with him, causing Kyung-Hee to worry about what would happen to her. Kyung-Hee’s worries did not subside after Mi-Young and her boyfriend broke up.

“She will marry one day, and then where will I go?” she said. “I have no friends. I have no one else.”

Recently, Kyung-Hee has begun to idealize her five years in China, saying, “if there were no North Korean police I would have kept living there.” However, she acknowledges that her life in South Korea is an improvement over her situation in North Korea.

“I don’t regret coming here,” she said. “Life is better here, but it’s still hard.”

Park Mi-Hye’s Story

When Park Mi-Hye arrived in Seoul in 2002, she felt overwhelmed. Tall buildings surrounded her, people rushed around her and the ways of this foreign society were hard for her to understand.

“It was so complex,” she said.

Mi-Hye grew up in a middle-class family just outside Pyongyang, living a relatively comfortable life in a country where proximity to the capital city indicates a higher social status. She married in 1991 and became widowed in 1995. After her husband’s death, Mi-Hye wanted a fresh start on life for herself and her two children.

Listening to her father-in-law cry as he told stories of his hometown of Busan, on the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, Mi-Hye started to think of South Korea as an option. She sometimes had a chance to watch smuggled videos of South Korean TV dramas. The TV characters wore nice watches. There were lots of cars on the streets. South Korean life seemed good — really good, in fact.

Adding to her sense of wonder about South Korea was a friend who relayed stories of North Koreans she knew who went to South Korea and lived happily. The North Korean government tries to block information like this from seeping into the country, but increased trade between China and North Korea, the rising use of cellphones along the border and the smuggling of videos into the country mean information is practically free-flowing compared to the days before high technology.

In early 2002, Mi-Hye crossed the border into China with her then-11-year-old son Yu-Jin; her daughter hid with relatives because she was too young for the dangerous journey. Mi-Hye and her son spent three days in a city in northeastern China before flying to a southeast Asian country. They spent two months there, during which time Mi-Hye came to know Christianity from the missionaries helping her and her son. Then they gained asylum in South Korea.

Mi-Hye spent the next three years working to get her daughter out of North Korea. She cooked and cleaned all day in a restaurant. She reconnected with an old Pyongyang friend who left North Korea a few years before her. She found God.

Finally, Mi-Hye saved enough money to bring her now-11-year-old daughter Yumi to South Korea. Yumi came to Seoul in May 2005 via China, where she spent about a week hiding with a guardian. During that time she cut her hair short and dressed as a boy so as to avoid being kidnapped into prostitution rings that prey on North Korean women in China. Yumi calls that week away from her family “kind of fun,” but she now wants to grow her hair as long as possible.

Five years after arriving in Seoul, Mi-Hye can be described as a person living a busy immigrant’s life: for eight or nine hours a day she runs a newspaper stand in a subway station and for four hours in the middle of the night she cleans a hagwon (tutoring school). In between she takes care of her two children and keeps in touch with brokers in China who are helping her get the rest of her relatives out of North Korea. Last year she succeeded in bringing her brother and his wife to Seoul. Mi-Hye’s dream is that her whole family will be successful and move to the United States one day.

“I don’t think about stress and if I do I just forget about it,” she said.

— Reported by Laura Elizabeth Pohl in 2006