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Defector's story

Defector describes difficult transition to South Korean society

Kim Ji Seung  |  2017-11-14 17:20

There are now 30,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea, but some are finding it difficult to adjust to life in the South. Despite the challenges, many are hoping that their efforts, driven by a sense of responsibility to set a positive 'preview of unification,' will help set the stage for a future unified Korean peninsula.

To better understand the successes and difficulties experienced by defectors in the process of resettlement, Unification Media Group is publishing a series of accounts by defectors, covering their experiences in employment, establishing businesses, and studying, as well as documenting stories where success has remained out of reach.

"Now, I'm alive," were the first words North Korean defector Choi Ah In (pseudonym) said after finally landing in South Korea. Choi, a 45-year-old native of North Hamgyeong Province, first noticed the agreeable temperature in South Korea compared to the bitter cold of North Korea and China and the stifling heat of Southeast Asia. 

But more than the pleasant weather, it was the overwhelming sense of relief that made the moment so powerful, after years of physical and mental suffering in North Korea. Choi was never permitted to explore her potential merely due to the fact that her father was born in the southern half of the peninsula prior to the Korean War. Three generations later, her low classification under the official songbun system (social stratification based on family political background) remained insurmountable. 

"I used to love writing. I was always top of the class in writing and literature. But it doesn't matter how hard you study because there is no hope in North Korea. The only thing that matters is your songbun."

From an early age, Choi was labeled an outcast and teased by classmates for being a "child of the puppet army." Every day, attending school was a struggle due to maltreatment from her peers. Nevertheless, Choi found relief in her studies and absorbed herself in books. 

Although Choi always excelled in her studies, she could never shake the stigma associated with her songbun. Choi says that at that time, she began to hate her country, dreaming instead of studying abroad and learning a foreign language. 

Choi's mother passed away when she was only 17 years old. She was left to fend for herself, mostly surviving on state rations of corn, soy paste, and soy sauce, and occasionally fell ill due to a lack of nutrition. Choi had to begin working, solely focused on finding enough food to make it to the next day. Certain rules were marginally relaxed when Kim Jong Il came to power, and she was able to pass an exam to get a job as an overnight dispatcher for a coalmine, where she worked for about 2 years.

Life in Hanawon

Like all North Korean defectors arriving in South Korea, Choi had to spend the first few months in the Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees, also known as Hanawon. Though Choi admits she has some fond memories of her time there, she also describes that period as extremely difficult, citing the many restrictions on her activities and the countless hours spent learning how to adapt to a new society.

Hanawon was, in her words, a prison without bars. Since most defectors spend some amount of time in a third country on their way to the South, Choi thinks that returning to such strict conditions can cause great stress, often resulting in fights between the defectors staying there. 

Choi was also unable to push away the constant thoughts of her 5-year-old daughter still in North Korea. She wanted nothing more than to bring her to the South where she could receive a proper education. 

But she was able to refocus her energy on a brand new start, especially when appreciating her new, safe environment in comparison to the more difficult times in the North and in China. Despite the immense cultural differences, the stress and resentment gradually melted away as Choi received support and assistance from those around her. She eventually found a husband and now greatly enjoys her life in the South.

Overcoming discrimination

In her first few months in Seoul after leaving Hanawon, Choi was living off about 400,000 KRW per month. While most take for granted the process of setting up an affordable mobile phone plan, Choi's unfamiliarity with the process resulted in a first monthly bill of 200,000 KRW. She had no choice but to take up extra part-time work, landing a job at a restaurant near Seoul National University Station. 

Choi thought it was a pretty good deal, boasting to her friends about earning 120,000 KRW for 12 hours of work in her new position. But she was instead informed that that she was being shortchanged - that a fair amount would be closer to 150,000 KRW. 

Choi approached her manager asking for better wages. In what would be a shocking introduction to anti-North Korean discrimination, the manager responded, "Due to your accent, I cannot raise your wages any higher. Do not ask about this again." 

Though she has been able to begin enjoying her life in the South, Choi says it has also been difficult to fully erase the horrible memories of her time in North Korea and China. She still occasionally dreams about being arrested by the North Korean authorities, but is ever-thankful for her husband's support in these times. Above all however, Choi dreams of upgrading to a bigger home, having more children, and enjoying time with her family - a simple, but satisfying life.

This article was made possible in part by funding from the Korea Press Foundation

*Translated by Colin Zwirko

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