|▲ PHOTOGRAPHED BY YEO YE-RIM
WE ENTERED the cozy brunch café in Sinchon to meet the two North Korean defector students. Student K glanced at the menu and ordered a New York style brunch. Student A pored over the sheets for a longer while and finally decided on steak. Excited for our food, we even considered ordering some beer too, until we remembered that we were at an interview.
Contrary to our perhaps prejudiced expectations, nothing stood out from the two students that revealed their unique identities as North Korean defectors. In fact, their banters about the recently released American horror film Annabelle: Creation made their extraordinary histories seem somewhat estranged from their everyday lives as college students. They were planning to watch yet another film released on that day after the interview; both of them holding the cinema’s VIP accounts, they were clearly huge movie fans.
Annals: Have you always been movie fans, even back in North Korea?
K: No, only since I moved to South Korea. The first film I got to see in South Korea was Mission Impossible starring Tom Cruise─he’s been my favorite actor ever since. They did have cinemas back in North Korea, but the facilities were really old school. You could hardly call them cinemas actually. It was just a room with some chairs and a big screen, and they used one of those low-resolution movie projectors. Whenever people stood up and walked around, they would pass through the beam lights and cast huge shadows on the screen (laughs).
A: Me too. I hardly ever went to the cinema in North Korea because they never screened anything worthwhile. There were no foreign films, and the domestic films were not that great. The North Korean film industry is really different not just in terms of size, but also because they don’t have the kind of huge craze about celebrities and movie stars like they do in South Korea. The only celebrated “stars” in North Korea are the current leader Kim Jong-un and his grandfather Kim Il-sung who remains as the messianic god-like figure for the North Koreans. Being a singer or an actor is nothing more than simply having an occupation.
Annals: So had there been no way of accessing any foreign media?
K: Actually, the black market for foreign media including South Korean dramas is bigger than you would think. Both of us are from Hamkyongbuk-do, which is located south of the Chinese borders. This meant that we had relatively easy access to foreign media, unlike the people who live farther inland. Oh, this is also why most North Korean defectors are commonly from Hamkyongbuk-do or Yangkang-do, another province nearby the borders. Anyway, foreign media─especially South Korean media─is strictly illegal, so I had to put the blinds down for every single window at home and watch in silence to avoid getting caught. But they were worth it. The fashion, hair styles, food and language… Everything seemed so modern and cool!
A: The punishment for watching South Korean media is so severe in North Korea. The government deploys covert spies in every village, so you can’t trust anyone to have daily conversations about such things. If you are reported and caught, you would immediately be sent to political prison camps or shot to death. But as K did, I also watched Chinese and South Korean dramas at home. The most impressive thing for me was how in these dramas, even the poorest people who are in debt ate white rice (ssal-bab) for every meal. They seemed to have it so easy; find some good luck and overcome poverty, and live happily ever after. I thought South Korea gave everyone a happy ending. Of course, I was soon disillusioned when I actually started living here─whether you are in the North or the South, the rich live well and prosper, while the poor don’t. Nevertheless, I think that preconception of South Korea did in a way influence my ultimate decision to escape from North Korea, though not significantly.
Annals: If the dramas didn’t do it, then what did make you move to South Korea?
A: For me, it was my aunt who persistently persuaded my family. My aunt is also a North Korean defector who came here before we did. We were able to receive calls from my aunt using a Chinese mobile phone and catching the Chinese phone signals nearby the borders. My aunt really didn’t want me to go to the military. When you finish the 11 years of compulsory education in North Korea, 90% of the people spend the next 10 years of their lives in the army. This is taken as a given in North Korea you see, because of the Songun ideology* which is deeply inculcated throughout the society. The North Koreans take much pride in serving their country; conversely, it is embarrassing not to serve. I had also thought it was completely natural for me to serve in the military after my education. But during my final year of education, I began to have second thoughts. I visited my older cousin who was serving in the military. Our family had bribed the superiors to get him into a better facilitated army base. Even so, his thin appearance showed me the hardship that he was experiencing. During this time of slight doubt, my aunt singlehandedly sought a broker and sent him to our home. Since the broker was already paid for, we decided to follow him to partake in the journey to South Korea. That night, we crossed the Duman River, which runs along the border between China and North Korea.
K: I was in a similar situation, because my mother had also moved to South Korea before me. I initially didn’t have a huge desire to flee from North Korea. North Korea is pretty good at brainwashing people to think─or not think─in certain ways. It’s basically like being a robot, you know. You don’t have to think about your life. You just finish compulsory education, serve in the military for 10 years, and then get a job assigned by the government. But my mother wanted me to experience the freedom that North Korea could never give me. So she sent a broker to our home, and I followed him with five other North Koreans that I met along the way.
Annals: You seem surprisingly calm when telling us about your journeys. Were you not frightened at all?
K: I guess I was too young to be aware about the potential dangers back then. I just did whatever the broker told us to do. I do remember the unpleasant stay in Thailand though. When we arrived in Thailand after the 15-20 days of traveling through China and Laos, we were taken to the prison since we were considered as illegal refugees. We were placed in prison cells with other domestic criminals like thieves and drug addicts. We had to stay there for about two to three months because that is how long it took for the Korean Embassy to arrange our flight to South Korea.
A: It is of course a very dangerous journey for anyone. Even the brokers themselves are difficult to trust. It’s not like a single broker accompanies us throughout the entire journey to South Korea. They only take us to the next meeting post, wherein we have to wait by ourselves for the next broker to pick us up. I think both K and I had just been very lucky to make it here in one go. A friend of mine told me that he had been caught ten times. Once, he even had to jump off a running train. In my case, I became aware of the dangers of being caught and deported when I arrived in China, because our broker told us to hide behind our luggage whenever the Chinese police came near our bus.
Annals: What about after your arrival in South Korea? Did you have any fears or other difficulties?
A: The three-month period of security clearance at the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) was quite intimidating. My parents and I were all separated from each other and individually placed into single cells that each contained a bed, a desk, and a toilet. In that cell, I had to write about my entire life in North Korea. But after that and our education at Hanawon**, I think I adjusted pretty quickly because I met some nice friends at school. Oh, I also really feared the police for a while in South Korea. It was an irrational fear because the chances of forced deportation are almost 1% once you escape China. But I was still afraid that they might catch and interrogate me (laughs).
K: Yeah, like A, my friends and teachers at middle and high school were all pretty considerate about the fact that I came from North Korea. They helped me to adjust well into my new environment. I did find the multiple choice type of exam questions in South Korea really difficult at first though, because they only had essay exams in North Korea. It was pretty competitive back there too, so I was used to academic pressures. But I still had to spend more time and effort for each exam than my classmates. I found Social Studies quite difficult too because of the education that I got in North Korea; since the two societies are almost polar opposites in their socioeconomic and political structures, they teach completely different “facts”. But that difficulty ironically inspired me to pursue further studies in the field of social sciences because I found the differences so fascinating.
Annals: How about with college education? Statistics show that many North Korean defector students drop out of college primarily because they find it difficult to keep up with the classes. Are you experiencing any difficulties?
K: I think I overcame most of the academia-related difficulties in high school. I don’t feel like I’m falling behind anything right now, thanks to my secondary education in South Korea. I guess college level education could be really daunting for people who didn’t get the chance to receive high school education here though.
A: I am thoroughly enjoying my classes here at Yonsei, although I often struggle with some of the English courses offered in our department. I’ve always found English difficult. Luckily, I met some really great upperclassmen who are always willing to help me out whenever I’m having a hard time. But I wish there were more mentoring systems available for North Korean defector students, because college can be quite intimidating even for those like us who have lived in South Korea for a long time. This is why I try my best to help out some of the freshmen who have backgrounds similar to ours through the student club, Tong il han ma dang. It is a student organization that helps North Korean defector students to network with other North and South Korean students at Yonsei University. We also hold seminars on topics like reunification and cultural differences of North and South Korea.
Annals: Please tell us more about your life as college students. What other student activities are you involved in? What do you do in your free time?
A: I actually flew back from Japan last week due to this student program I was participating in. I really enjoyed it because I like traveling. Oh, except for the time that I went to China. Obviously, China is a really dangerous place for North Korean defectors, so my parents didn’t want me to go. But I went anyway with another North Korean defector friend of mine, only to regret not listening to my parents. Once we got lost and went up to some Chinese policemen to ask for directions. They said they also weren’t sure and then took out their walkie-talkies. I know they only probably wanted to check whether other policemen could help out, but we both got paranoid that they might report us, so we quickly left.
K: I wish I could travel like A. I’ve never been abroad since I came to South Korea, but I hope to visit somewhere like Japan or Europe one day. I should really start saving up for that. I might get a part-time job next semester as an assistant at a hak-won. Anyway, other than Tong il han ma dang, I am a member of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), an NGO that helps bring North Korean refugees in China to South Korea. Next semester, I want to join more hobby-related student clubs like badminton or traveling.
A: Hey K, did you know there’s also an intercollegiate student traveling club with places like Ewha University? Maybe you’ll even get to make a girlfriend there (laughs).
Annals: (To student A) Do you have a girlfriend?
A: No I broke up with my girlfriend last year. I have a blind date with a Ewha University student soon though!
Annals: We can see that you are really enjoying the college culture here. But we are curious─why would you prefer to remain anonymous?
K: Not many people here know my identity as a North Korean defector. I think a lot of us want to hide our backgrounds because of the prejudice we might face as North Korean defectors. The media portrays North Korea in a very negative light, and some of the negative aspects are overstated. Some people think that North Korean defectors are “stingy” and “vicious” due to some of the exaggerated reality shows here. I don’t want people to see me any differently just because I come from North Korea.
A: I can see why many North Korean defector students like K would rather not disclose their identities. Although most of the people I’ve met here so far have generally been very considerate, there was one friend from high school who really disappointed me. Perhaps out of jealousy or spite, he questioned why I was admitted to such a prestigious university like Yonsei while he was not. His nuance was that I got lucky because of my somewhat special background, which made me feel like all my efforts were overlooked. This moreover made me believe that other students at college might see me in the same way. But I’m not that self-conscious anymore. Now I just think I should fight such prejudices by working even harder. We risked our lives to seek liberty in South Korea. Many of us work really hard with a sense of real appreciation and responsibility toward the society that protects and supports us.
K: I am also really grateful for the protection and support from the South Korean government. But at the same time, we should never take that for granted. I often feel a heavy burden when I disclose my identity as a North Korean defector, almost as if I am representing the entire population of North Korean defectors here in South Korea. I have the mind-set that I should work four hours to achieve what others can achieve in two hours, especially to live up to the name of Yonsei University.
Annals: Wow, those are really resonant words. Do you have any final words for our readers?
K: When you come across North Korean defector students on campus, I hope that you could approach them as you would approach any other college students. What you see on the media is never the full picture. We are simply Yonsei University students with similar worries about schoolwork, family and friends. We want to earn money and travel abroad. We too agonize about our career paths and dream of success. We just have different past experiences.
A: Yes, I hope to see gradual changes in the way that the South Korean society views North Korean defectors. To overcome some of the stereotypes or prejudices, I think people should take more interest in the lives of North Korean defectors. On that note, please join Tong il han ma dang. Both North and South Korean students are welcome!
*Songun ideology: A political ideology which prioritizes the military
**Hanawon: Officially named “Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees,” it is an educational center owned by the Ministry of Unification to help North Koreans adapt better in the South Korean society.