This article appeared in the March 2016 issue of Groove Korea. Edited by Anita McKay. Story and photos by Barbara Bierbrauer. Translation by Oh Sun-taek and Park Jae-man. View the magazine [PDF] here.
“I do not miss North Korea. I miss my father who is still there. I hope one day I can see him again,” Kim Myung-chul*, a high-school student who recently escaped from North Korea with his mother, tells Groove Korea. His family could be described as wealthy — they lived in a city and after school he would play PC games on his own computer, a childhood similar to his southern counterparts.
The wish for a better life in the South made his mother arrange their defection to South Korea. She earned enough money to secure the services of brokers who organized everything from the border crossing and bribing to transportation, accommodation and meals. Kim Myung-chul does not know the details of arrangements, which are kept secret even among family members.
“[My mother] gave the money to the brokers and they arranged our defection. We crossed the Tumen River. On the Chinese side, the broker picked us up. There were six of us. The brokers brought us to the bus station,” he recalls.
From there they traveled down south on public transport until they reached Thailand a month later where there is a South Korean embassy. Their journey wasn’t easy — they did not possess any travel documents and traveled under the constant threat of being recognized as North Koreans and reported to the authorities. They spent another month in Thailand before they reached South Korea.
Kim Myung-chul is one of the 28,795 North Koreans who, according to the Ministry of Unification, have made it to South Korea since 1998. Even though it’s been almost two decades, the media and governmental organizations still use a wide range of terms to describe them: refugees, defectors, escapees, economic migrants, new South Korean citizens.
Currently the Ministry of Unification and National Intelligence Service use the term “refugees.” China, the country through which most North Koreans have to pass on their way to the South, does not accept this refugee status, instead labeling North Koreans in its territory as “illegal economical migrants” who are also subject to deportation. However, South Korea views the North as a part of the original Korean territory, meaning that North Korean citizens are considered South Korean citizens.
Although he can choose one of these descriptions, Kim Myung-chul doesn’t want to be linked to North Korea at all. He chose a fake name for this interview. “I don’t want the people to know my name and I don’t want anyone to know that I am from North Korea,” he says. “My classmates don’t know it either. If people find out, they will bully me.” His experience, like that of so many other defectors, has been sobering.
Over rivers, mountains and countries
The exact number of people who defect from the North is unknown. Not all North Koreans go to the South. There are between 10,000 and 100,000 North Korean defectors illegally living on Chinese soil, according to estimates by Jiyoung Song and Alistair D. B. Cook in their book Irregular Migration and Human Security in East Asia. These people are illegal workers, subject to human trafficking, sold as brides, and children of Chinese-North Korean liaisons. Deciding to leave North Korea is not an easy decision to make and, according to Nam Bada, Secretary General of People for Successful Corean Reunification (PSCORE), it’s getting harder to do.
“Kim Jong-un’s government is tightening the border controls. It is becoming more difficult to get over [the border]. We have no idea how many people get caught and turned back at the border, but we assume that they are numerous,” Bada explains. “But even if they are successful in crossing the border, there is a long way to go.” Just like Kim Myung-chul and his family, anyone who leaves North Korea without permission faces a long, dangerous, humiliating journey with a completely unknown outcome.
How and where to cross the North Korean border and where to go after relies upon various components — the most important being money. Being able to bribe your way out with the help of brokers can help, but it won’t secure a safe passage.
Contacting a broker can be the easiest step if you know the right people, but even without money there are still ways to leave.
Ahn Chung-guk, an art student, owes his life in South Korea to the braveness of his father, who crossed the border without money accompanied by his friends. Things took a bad turn when he lost contact with his friends after arriving in China. “He was very desperate and did not know what to do,” Ahn says.
Alone without support or a job, Ahn’s father tried to surrender himself to a Chinese police officer. “The police officer did not arrest him, he said ‘You know it is dangerous for you [to be sent back to North Korea] and told him to go to the next restaurant and have some food and warm up. My father did what he was told to do, but he had no money to pay for his meal.”
Luckily the restaurant let him eat for free. Unfortunately, his luck did not continue when he took a job on a farm but did not receive payment for three months. North Korean laborers abroad often become victims of abuse and exploitation as they have no rights and are not protected.
But he had some luck. “He had a telephone number of another person from North Korea who already lived in China, and was finally able to contact him. This guy found a broker for him,” Ahn says. Despite a lack of money, the brokers arranged for Ahn’s father to travel to the South on credit. “When he arrived, he paid the brokers back [with his settlement allowance]. He also paid the brokers for his family. All together, for four people, himself, my mother, me and my brother, he paid around 20 million won. He earned that money in one year. He worked very hard,” Ahn says.
Just like Ahn Chung-guk and Kim Myung-chul, Kim Cheon-guk, a 21-year-old student of tourism management, fled the North for Thailand. “My mother and I escaped North Korea four years ago. It took us three months to get to South Korea [from] Thailand.”
According to Bada, Mongolia used to be a good destination too (although the journey through the Gobi Desert is considered extremely dangerous), but since the Chinese government tightened its border controls, it is getting increasingly difficult to cross the border illegally. Without a broker the chances of being caught increase. Russia, which also shares a border with North Korea, extradites defectors that cross the border illegally.
If defectors are caught in China, the most likely outcome is their deportation to North Korea and imprisonment.
Relearning how to live
All defectors who land in South Korea are subject to investigation by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) in order to ensure that they are not a security threat. As well as this, the NIS “protects North Korean refugees [..] for around three months when they enter the Republic of Korea, provides treatment to any diseases they have because of the poor healthcare and malnutrition in North Korea, provides psychological and physical support for any suffering caused by the process of defecting from North Korea,” according to the NIS Homepage, Protection of North Korean Refugees.
Ahn Chung-guk was 13 when he reached South Korea with his mother and 8-year-old brother. When their plane touched down, they were told to stay seated until officials picked them up. Once they got to the investigation center, he was separated from his mother.
Ahn and his brother were kept together with other male defectors and were not allowed to meet their mother for the entire duration of the investigation. Every now and again they caught a glimpse of her while she was collecting her meal, but any conversation was strictly prohibited. Soon they were transferred to another facility, which Ahn described as “a cell.”
“The people [at NIS] were never kind to us. They used to swear and scream at my brother and me. I was not allowed to go out at all,” Anh says. “No one told me how long we will have to stay there, what will happen to us or when will we see our mother. My brother could go out every now and then, but I had to stay in the cell. I was held there for one-and-a-half months. The actual investigation only took one day to do, when the officer asked different questions about my school, my hometown, my friends etc.”
Ahn’s experience with NIS is not unique. Last November, at a United Nations Human Rights conference to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it was noted “with concern that ‘defectors’ from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are detained in the Center for North Korean Defectors upon their arrival, and may be held in the center for up to six months.” Furthermore, it maintains “the State party should ensure that DPRK ‘defectors’ are detained for the shortest possible period, and that detainees are given access to counsel during the entire length of their detention, that counsel be available during interrogations, and that the duration and methods of interrogation are subject to strict limits which comply with international human rights standards.” This isn’t the first time investigation and interrogation methods by the NIS have been brought to light. In 2014, two NIS counterintelligence officials were convicted of fabricating evidence to bring a case against a defector.
With the investigations successfully completed, the defectors are transferred to an obligatory three-month long re-education program at Hanawon, a facility where they are taught how to live in the South.
Many North Koreans are in need of medical and therapeutic treatment when they arrive — the result of poor diet and medical care in the North. At Hanawon, North Koreans receive medical care and, additionally, full medical insurance that covers all eventual treatment costs for five years after their arrival.
Hanawon provides classes on Korean history, a subject of tremendous significance, as well as simple, but vital, everyday things, such as how to purchase a transport ticket, pay a bill and explore the city.
In recent years, a subject of seemingly lower importance has had a big influence on how North Koreans perceive life in the South. K-dramas, although illegal, are watched widely in the North. “The Korean dramas are very popular in the North,” Bada says. “While the older generations are less informed and their dialect is very strong, the younger people are adopting the South Korean language much faster because they have been watching the dramas back home. They speak like South Koreans already when they arrive here.”
According to the Ministry of Unification, after the program at Hanawon is completed, the government provides the defectors with a basic settlement benefit, installment benefit, and a housing subsidy, a total of 20 million won (for a single household). Furthermore, a single person is eligible for monthly support of 320,000 won for the next five years, health insurance and support in job training, or scholarships for university.
Starting a new life
“There is a discrepancy between what the North Korean defectors want and what they need,” Bada says. “After all the struggles of the journey, the time at the investigation facility and Hanawon, they have the money and they want to fulfill their dreams.” This can lead to unforeseen complications: life, as portrayed in K-dramas is much different to reality, and money runs out quickly. “North Koreans are living in a totally different world. Adults think that they understand how South Korean society works, and they want to make money, earn their living,” he says.
North Korean defectors don’t think they need additional help. When the Hanawon administration planned to extend its program by three months, defectors protested, not seeing any benefit in the provision of more substantial re-education. “Mostly they come to South Korea because of economical reasons and they see South Korean dramas in North Korea, they are dreaming to live like people live in these dramas — big house, luxury, high living standard, but that is actually not possible, at least not immediately,” Bada says. The expectation of high living standards, coupled with difficulties in the job market makes the start of an independent life complicated.
After they have completed their time at Hanawon and are settled into their new home, defectors are free to apply for jobs and enter schools or universities. Unfortunately for some, the backlash begins here.
When Kim Myung-chul began high school, he decided not to reveal his background, fearing bullying from his classmates. After a year and a half, his classmates are still not aware that he is a North Korean defector. Ahn made a different decision, thinking that his North Korean origin was nothing he should hide.
“At first my classmates were surprised, but then they started teasing me, asking stupid questions. They asked me if we have porn in North Korea. I could not answer as I did not know what porn was. Or they asked if there is blood everywhere on the streets. Or if all North Koreans have to wear red. Also they spread a rumor that I escaped North Korea because I was in trouble there. They said I made a baby and ran away.”
Ahn had two other classmates from North Korea, one who decided to keep his background secret for fear of being bullied.
“Korean society is not friendly towards North Korean defectors,” Bada says. “[There are] many explanations. We must not forget that, in 1950, the North invaded the South, which led to exceptionally high casualties between the civilians, causing the death of hundreds of thousands of South Koreans.”
Since the end of the war, several incidents have increased tension in North-South relations: the assassination of President Park Chung-hee’s wife in 1974 by a North Korean sympathizer, the Blue House Raid by North Korean commandos, the 1983 bombing attempt in Burma, the death of South Korean sailors in 2002 and multiple minor infiltration attempts. Another dark period in Korean history also explains the fear and antipathy — the massacres of suspected communists. The government of President Lee Syngman is held responsible for ordering the execution of hundreds of thousands of civilians and political prisoners suspected of collaboration or sympathizing with the communist regime in the North.This is a controversial issue which can be seen in the recent high-tempered discussion about the content of history textbooks in public schools.
According to 2015 statistics reported in Korea JoongAng Daily, North Korean defectors predominantly work in low-wage jobs, earning an average of 1.4 million won per month, 760,000 won less than the average earnings of a South Korean. They are three times more likely to commit suicide. Because some of them have difficulties handling the money they earn or get from the state — spending it on luxury articles such as watches or design clothing — they are more likely than South Koreans to get involved (willingly or unwillingly) in criminal activities.
Nevertheless, the image of North Korean defectors in the South is improving. “[Over the] six years of my work at PSCORE, people are more accepting [towards North Korean defectors],” Bada says. “Some people used to be really against our street campaigns. They said ‘It’s not true, all fake and lies.’ People are better informed now, recently also becoming more supportive.” TV shows featuring defectors have played a big role in this. Female defectors are featured on dating shows, other defectors regularly appear on talk shows such as Moranbong Club and On My Way to Meet You, as well as a reality TV show Let’s Go Together. The popularity of these shows have helped remove some of the prejudices held against North Koreans in the South.
Still there are some issues that need to be worked out when addressing the problems defectors face. A 2014 report, Resettling in South Korea: Challenges for Young North Korean Defectors, by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies points out that currently seven governmental institutions (the Ministry of Unification, National Police Agency, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Employment and Labor, Ministry of Health and Welfare, Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and Municipal and Provincial Authorities) are responsible for different programs addressing North Korean defectors. Communication between the authorities in charge and the quality, transparency and duration of the support programs are the elements that have to be improved in order to provide defectors with more help during the adaptation and integration process.
Bada says that the government has to involve more North Koreans in solving the issues that affect them instead of approaching the issue in a “South Korean way.”
“When the administration [tries] to solve some problems connected with North Korean defectors, they [approach] them in a very South Korean way, with their own background. But the issues North Korean defectors have are different, so the solutions have to be discussed with North Korean defectors, they have to involve the people more,” he says. Currently some North Koreans are participating with some input, but are sidelined. “So it would be [useful] if the government would interact with North Korean defectors more and would listen to their needs, not making the bureaucratic system so powerful,” Bada says.
Looking to the future
The people and the country across the border have more to offer than what is usually portrayed in the media. Their struggle for happiness, security, and cohesion is what they share with the South. Despite the challenges that they face here, Kim Myung-chul, Ahn Chung-guk and Kim Cheon-guk are dreaming big for their own future as well as for the future of their own country.
Like any other university student, Ahn wants to be successful. But he also wants to show the beauty of his hometown and, through his art, help people in the South overcome their prejudice towards defectors. “If I could change something for North Korean defectors, I would work on prejudice,” he says.
Kim Cheon-guk has similar aspirations. He hopes that his hometown of Gilju, now infamous for the hydrogen bomb test on January 6 and a concentration camp in its neighborhood, will one day make headlines for different reasons. “My hometown is embedded between beautiful mountains and is close to an amazing sea. The nature is so rich, the sea view is breathtaking. I wish I could open the first hotel in my hometown later so other people would also have the possibility to enjoy the beauty of North Korea,” he says.
*Name changed to protect identity