“Since the 1950s, about 27 000 [North Korean refugees] have come [to South Korea]”, says NGO Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) co-founder Casey Lartigue. “Most of them have come in the last 15 years.
“When the Soviet Union collapsed, the North Korean economy also began to collapse,” Lartigue continues. “Then you have the famines of the mid-1990s. Some of the guards themselves were trying to escape.”
According to Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, 100 000 to 300 000 North Koreans have defected to other countries, with the majority hiding in Russia and China.
One of TNKR’s learners, Ken (who prefers the use of his first name only for this article) was in the North Korean military for 10 years.
“The most difficult thing is hunger,” Ken says. “The North Korean soldiers [did not] always get enough food.”
Although he is still working on his English, Ken exudes animated confidence as he tells his story. He is one of 15 Track Two learners at TNKR, which Lartigue explains is for “those refugees who are interested in public speaking,” whether it be to deliver work presentations or to speak out on North Korean issues.
Ken had to move to North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, for military service. Soldiers were not allowed to contact family by telephone, only by letter.
“But letter must be checked,” Ken adds. “There is no Internet in North Korea.”
After finishing military service, Ken returned home to find that his brother and mother were missing. Three weeks later, he received news that his family had defected to South Korea.
“I was really shocked. Even though my family had defected, I just continued to look for a job and tried to stay in North Korea,” Ken recalls. “But I couldn’t.”
This was the kind of punishment that the government had for family members of North Korean defectors.
“Even if I stayed, after six months maybe a public servant from the North Korean government would be watching me, so I decided [to leave],” he says. “[The North Korean government] watches everybody … but especially someone who [has] a relative who is a defector.”
Three months following military service, Ken embarked on a four-day journey to South Korea, via Laos and Thailand, with the help of a broker. Without a passport, he had to cross the border illegally.
“[The journey was] dangerous. [I] swim in the Amnok River,” Ken says of the first challenge of crossing the border between North Korea and China. “It took 15 minutes to cross, but it felt like 15 hours. It was as if a thousand needles were going through me!”
Eventually, Ken reached the South Korean embassy in Thailand, where he received a South Korean passport and was able to take a plane to South Korea. Like many others, Ken went through culture shock as he learned to adjust living in a “totally different social system.”
“North Korean people were provided food and some money by [the] government, but in South Korea, we have to make money ourselves,” he says.
However, because everyone was paid so little in their jobs in North Korea, Ken now considers it more like volunteer work rather than an actual job.
TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee says one challenge that North Koreans face in South Korea is employment. Employers have a capitalistic expectation of employees, which is, “they should be more active without orders from the boss.”
“[There is] difficulty of finding a job for South Korean people, but North Korean people [face] more difficulties, because South Korean people [are] influenced by the media—like North Korea is terrible country or they are [the] enemy kind of thing,” Lee says.
Ken also had preconceived notions of South Koreans.
“When I entered the South Korean embassy, there were some people who treat me very kind. I’m very [suspicious] … maybe they try to get information out of me,” Ken admits. “When I went to church [for the] first time, many people [were] being friendly. I thought maybe they’re working undercover as a spy for the government.”
Sharon Jang, another TNKR North Korean learner, shares what life in North Korea was like, with the help of a translator.
“The first cellphone came out in 2010 or 2011,” she recalls. “At that time, pagers began to emerge, but they cost 3M won [$4100 CAD.]
“Most North Koreans have TVs, but they are large monitors,” adds Jang, who has been in South Korea for three years. “The poor have black and white while the rich can get colour TV.”
“The hardest part was working in the coal mines,” she says of the 15-hour workdays, which consisted of transferring 30 bags of coal weighing 40 kilos each.
The actual take-home pay was only 1000 won [$1.37 CAD] per month after taking other fees into account.
In November 2011, Jang began her escape from North Korea by going to a different city for 13 days with no pass. In North Korea, a special pass is required when visiting other jurisdictions, so Jang was in special danger of being caught, on top of the drug activity that surrounded her.
After crossing the Tumen River, another river that divides North Korea from China, a broker obtained by her mother, which cost 7M won [$9500 CAD], assisted her. She then spent two months travelling through China and Laos before making her way to the South Korean embassy in Thailand. Shortly after, she arrived in South Korea and discovered her mother—who had escaped to South Korea when Jang was 14—had a new husband as well as a new son.
“It was challenging for me to adjust to a new family. I had not seen my mom in 10 years,” Jang recalls.
Jang still has family back home, but she has sent money to them only once, as it is a complicated process that involves three different brokers from China, South Korea and North Korea.
When asked if she considers herself North Korean, South Korean or simply Korean, Jang responds, “At first, I was confused. But now I don’t think it’s important where I came from—I consider myself a South Korean citizen living in South Korea.”
For more information about TNKR, visit teachnorthkoreanrefugees.org.