Defecting From North Korea’s Middle Class


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This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Groove Korea. Photo by Dylan Goldby. Translation by Caroline Mahon. Read the magazine here.

When Kim Chol-soo* and his wife, Kim Young-ok*, first arrived in South Korea they had doubts about their new life. It was not what they had expected. Worries over finances arose soon after their arrival, and the government-provided apartment failed to offer them the same comforts as their home back in North Korea. Their first few months living in the South were difficult — a far cry from the life they had just left behind.

“At first I felt regret,” Chol-soo says, thinking back to when he first arrived in the South almost five years ago. “When I came to South Korea I was very worried about economics, and I wondered if I had done something I would regret. We lived in an apartment provided by the government, but it wasn’t a nice apartment. At first I felt worried about the decision we had made.”

Unlike many who have defected, Chol-soo and Young-ok did not experience the worst of North Korea. They lived a more privileged life — a middle-class existence. What they describe couldn’t be further from the stories of torture, enslavement and other inhumane acts recorded in a report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea early last year. Their defection to the South in 2010 was driven by a desire for more freedom, to escape life under a dictator.

“People in North Korea thought that Kim Jong-il was a very poisonous leader,” Chol-soo says. “He knew how bad the conditions were during the famine, but he didn’t do anything about it, and as a dictator he continually lied to the people. He was really a poison.”

Despite their wealth in the North, living under a totalitarian regime that showed no signs of change pushed them to leave. After arriving in the South it took some time to adapt to their new life.

“It took time to adjust to the change from a higher position in society to a much lower one,” Chol-soo adds.

Adapting to life in the South

As they settled into their new life it became apparent that some of the information they had received about life in the South wasn’t entirely true.

“The lifestyle in South Korea I had previously imagined was very different from the reality,” Chol-soo says. “We had seen a lot of dramas and while we were watching them we thought, ‘Ah Korea — this is what it will be like.’”

Unfortunately, their new life did not resemble those of the characters in “Autumn in My Heart,” “Stairs to Heaven” or “The General’s Son.” Government housing failed to recreate the idyllic life they had envisioned, and their middle-class life ceased to exist.

“In North Korea we were middle class and very comfortable, but here we have less money,” Young-ok says.

“The decision to come to South Korea was hard,” Chol-soo says. “We gave up everything we had, and when we first arrived our lives were difficult.”

He describes the difficulties that they faced as subtle, rather than a great shock, although the sight of women in short skirts was something he didn’t expect.

“You can almost see their panties,” he says. “It’s not really culture shock, but as a man I think, ‘Oh, what’s that?’”

Along with their initial struggles over finances and the hardship that leaving family behind brings, they had difficulty understanding the South Korean accent and, in Young-ok’s case, building a career.

“Developing my professional and technical skills in the workplace was difficult at first,” she says. “I had a hard time building a career.”

In the North, Young-ok had quit her job as a librarian when she got married. Eager to begin working again, she enrolled in a three-month certificate program when she arrived in the South. However, colleagues’ misperceptions about North Koreans created an uneasy working environment for her.

“Sometimes, at work my co-workers won’t talk to me or treat me the same way as everyone else because I am North Korean,” she says. “Maybe some people are worried that because of my background I don’t have the right skills to work.”

Young-ok has worked hard to prove herself in and has since gained 12 certificates in her area of work.

“Now, nobody doubts my skills, and everybody talks to me. I accept that I am from North Korea and so do my colleagues,” she says.

While the two countries share a language, the difference in accent is apparent. When they first arrived they found it difficult to attune their ears to the different intonation and manner of speaking. Their own accents, foreign to South Koreans, were met with curiosity when they engaged in conversation with locals.

“When people would hear me speak they would ask if I was really a Korean person,” Chol- soo says. “Because of our accents, where we are from always comes up immediately in conversation. Sometimes people think we are from China instead, or gyopos (ethnic Koreans raised abroad).”

While neither of them shies away from telling people where they are from, their answer usually elicits the same reaction.

“‘Oh, wow, you are from North Korea,’ is what a lot of people say,” Chol-soo says. “Usually, people have a lot of questions right away. A lot of North Koreans tell people that they are from China instead, but we always say that we are from North Korea.”

Young-ok says that people they meet often have misconceptions or make hasty judgments about them and their lives in the North.

“Our lives are far more similar to theirs than people realize,” she says.

Middle-class life in the North

She describes a middle-class life in North Korea as a life not that different from what is experienced in the South.

“North Korea has a dictator and there is no free speech,” she says. “However, overall, life is more or less just the same there as it is anywhere. People go to work, people date, people make friendships and go to school — it is a country of ordinary people, living ordinary lives.”

Their “ordinary” lives were filled with work that left them with little personal time at weekends. Chol-soo owned a private business selling household electronics from China. He worked day and night to ensure his business remained successful, but had to be cautious not to cross the line that separates success and illegal activity.

“If my business had grown too large it would have become illegal,” he says. “People are not allowed to earn a large personal income. Even though my business wasn’t necessarily illegal, I always had to be careful in my transactions not to earn too much.”

To ensure that his business remained aboveboard, he continually had to pay off the police — who, he says, happily accepted bribes.

“It is a system,” Young-ok says. “The goods from China come by car and the police both protect the cars and extort bribes from (the drivers).” The payoffs ranged from $20 to $30 (worth about 55,000 South Korean won today), which they say was “expensive” by North Korean standards.

The practice of bribing police officers did not only protect their business; it also guaranteed their personal safety.

“If you paid bribes you would not need to be afraid,” Chol-soo explains.

Their middle-class life, while ordinary to them, differs greatly from the personal accounts North Korea has become synonymous with. Stories of prison camps and unbearably harsh living conditions are common among escapees. The gap between the rich and poor — the city and the countryside — is pre-prescribed by the “seongbun” (social status) system, which determines where North Koreans will live, what occupations they can have and the level of education they receive, depending on the history of their families’ loyalty to the regime.

Young-ok explains that while they were aware of a gap between the rich and the poor, they were oblivious to the atrocities being committed in their country.

“It was only when we came here that we heard stories about other people getting in trouble and being sent to jail,” Young-ok says.

It wasn’t until Chol-soo and Young-ok were getting acquainted with their new lives that they learned of the full scope of the abuse that was occurring in their homeland.

“We watched a PowerPoint presentation about pregnant women in prison camps in North Korea who were forced to have abortions,” Young-ok says. “We couldn’t believe this — we had never heard of this before. We were close with many police officers and officials and we would entertain them as guests at our home sometimes.

“The officers we were close with, they were just our friends, it doesn’t seem like this would happen unless the people were very serious criminals and then treated as such. We, and everybody else that we knew, were just such ordinary people,” she says.

Young-ok says that they were “perplexed” when they first heard of the abuse.

“The police are unjust,” she says. “There are no human rights.”

Escaping to the South

As a businessman Chol-soo was afforded the luxury of owning a phone and the ability to communicate with China to arrange trade. While most people receive information from outside of North Korea through South Korean radio broadcasts, his unique status gave them access to a wider range of information from China, which proved crucial in helping them leave the North.

Chol-soo had a friend with family in China whom he contacted on their behalf. His friend, who joined the military straight after high school and quickly became a devoted soldier, was initially not interested in visiting his mother in China, but Chol-soo was “instantly captivated” by the idea.

“Most people are aware of the better living conditions in China and I wanted to go and, even though my friend was disinterested, his mother urged us to come and see the better living conditions in China,” he says. “The idea to go see his mother instantly captivated my heart.”

In 2009 rumors began to circulate about Kim Jong-il’s bad health. The idea of power being transferred to his son pushed them to leave North Korea.

“The successor to Kim Jong-il was going to be another dictator and we realized that North Korea was not going to change,” Chol-soo says. “Since I was young it was my dream to leave, but I didn’t leave until then.”

With help from their friend’s mother in China, Chol-soo and Young-ok were able to arrange for a broker to take them to the South. For a fee of $2,000, which was paid on arrival in South Korea, the broker took care of everything — transportation, housing, and everyone involved along the way.

Packing only a small bag and leaving all their money with their family, they began their journey to the South. Traveling by boat, bus and car, they crossed the Amnok River to Dandong, China, a major trading city for the North. From there they spent the next three days traveling over 4,800 kilometers (3,000 miles) to the Chinese city of Kunming, which connected them to Laos and then to Thailand, where there is a South Korean embassy. While their journey was relatively trouble-free, they traveled under the constant fear of being caught.

“Until we reached Thailand, I was afraid and anxious,” Chol-soo says.

“We were always so afraid until we were on the plane to South Korea,” Young-ok recalls. As the plane touched down at Incheon International Airport, their fear disappeared and excitement set in as they began their new life in the South.

No more regrets

The doubts that Chol-soo and Young-ok had when they arrived in the South have disappeared. While their time in the South has at times been trying, they no longer doubt the decision they made.

Instead of regret, they have a desire to learn and speak out about their lives in the North.

“When we think about and talk about North Korea, we need to see the divide between the people and the government,” Young-ok says.

“When we first came to South Korea we were much worse off than when we were living in North Korea,” Chol-soo says. “But that’s not true anymore. Now, our lives are very happy, and we are happier in South Korea.”

*Names changed to protect identity

This interview was facilitated by Casey Lartigue and Lee Eunkoo, co-directors at Teach North Korean Refugees, a volunteer program that matches North Korean refugees with English teaching volunteers.

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