North Koreans struggle to adapt after fleeing to South
Seoul, South Korea — A middle-aged man is walking through a quiet Seoul neighborhood when he suddenly stops. He lights a cigarette, cupping his hands to shield the flame from the winter wind, and takes a deep draw, remembering how things used to be. He’s a former policeman, a broad-shouldered man with a growling voice and a crushing handshake.
Back where he came from, he says, he was someone who mattered.
“In North Korea, people were afraid of me,” he says. He says it wistfully, almost sadly, like a boy talking about a dog he once had. “They knew I could just drag them away.”
That fear meant respect, and bribes, in the North Korean town where he lived, a place where the electricity rarely worked and the Internet was only a rumor. It meant he could buy a TV, and that he had food even as those around him went hungry. It meant that when he grew exhausted by the relentless poverty and oppression around him, and when relatives abroad offered to advance him the money to escape, he had connections to a good smuggler.
Just over a year ago, that smuggler showed him where to slip across a river and into China, on his way to South Korea. His new home is one of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nations in the world. It has a thriving democracy and a per-capita income at least 12 times larger than the North’s. Seoul is a city of infinite shopping choices, glass-fronted office towers and armies of exquisitely dressed businesspeople. He used to dream of the easy life he’d have here.
And what does he think now?
“Sometimes, when my work is too hard, I think about my job as a policeman,” says the man, who spoke on condition his name not be used, fearing for the safety of relatives who still live in the North. “I didn’t have problems with money back then. I ate what I wanted to eat.” He pauses, thinking about his decision to leave: “There are times when I regret it a lot.”
Every year, thousands of North Koreans risk imprisonment, or worse, to leave their homeland, many hoping to eventually reach the South. Instead, they often find themselves lost in a nation where they thought they’d feel at home, struggling with depression, discrimination, joblessness and their own lingering pride in the repressive nation they left behind. Surveys have shown that up to one-third would return home if they could.
Take the former policeman, an increasingly bitter day laborer who now supports his family hauling bags of cement through the sprawling apartment blocks constantly under construction around Seoul. His hands are rougher than sandpaper now. His fingernails are warped. He sleeps most nights in a dormitory near his latest construction site, just outside the city, only occasionally visiting his wife and the rest of his family, who live in a middle-class Seoul neighborhood.
“I knew that South Korea was a capitalist country, that it was very rich. I thought that if I can just get there, I can work less but earn a lot of money,” he says.
He grimaces when he thinks of his naivete.
More than 27,000 North Koreans exiles live in the South, most arriving since a brutal famine tore at the country in the mid-1990s. Government control foundered amid widespread starvation, and security loosened along the border with China. While security has again tightened, nearly 1,300 refugees reached South Korea last year, according to statistics compiled by the Seoul government. For most, the journey required bribing border guards, life underground in China for months or years, and weeks of travel through still more countries.
They left behind one of the most isolated nations in the world, where the ruling family has been worshiped now for three generations, and only a minuscule elite are allowed to make international phone calls. It has no free press or political opposition. While the famine is over, the country remains very poor, with hunger and malnutrition serious problems.
It’s a country where jobs are assigned by the government, but where most families now survive by selling everything from rice to car parts in an ever-growing network of markets. Most North Korean refugees come from collective farms or hardscrabble towns near the Chinese border. Few have more than a high school education.
Tens of thousands of North Koreans are believed to live underground in China. Some stay permanently, while others slip back into the North after earning extra money. For many, though, the lure of a wealthy, Korean-speaking nation is strong, even if refugees’ expectations of the South are often shaped less by reality and more by the bootlegged southern soap operas that are wildly popular in the North.
Those who go find themselves living in one of the most brutally competitive countries in the world, where education is worshiped, toddlers are offered exam-prep classes and a drive for perfection has produced one of the world’s highest rates of plastic surgery.
“Life in South Korea is competitive,” Hong Yong-pyo, South Korea’s minister of unification, said in a recent speech to a group of defectors. “For you to succeed in this competition, you need to push yourself on your own.”
But that can be very difficult. Despite government programs that include an immersive three-month program, along with assistance in getting apartments and jobs, the exiles are immediately marked by their accents and their confusion over everything from checking accounts to job applications. Many are noticeably shorter than southerners because of malnutrition, a serious issue in a country that sees height as a measure of attractiveness and success. When it comes to finding work, they have none of the school or hometown connections that are often key here to getting hired, and many South Koreans dismiss them as lazy and difficult.
When they do get jobs, seemingly simple things — such as knowing they need to arrive at work on time — can leave them flummoxed, their pride badly battered.
“It has happened so many times: They show up for work for one or two days, then get into a fight with their colleagues and quit,” says Ahn Kyung-su, a Seoul-based researcher who has spent years working with exiles.
As a result, they remain far less educated than most South Koreans and have far higher rates of unemployment. Their most common profession is unskilled laborer.
Even success doesn’t make life easy.
Gae-yoon Lee, who was raised on a collective farm, left North Korea in 2010 with only a high school diploma. Six years later, she’s a published poet who often writes about her childhood and the famine, and is midway through a degree in Korean literature at one of Seoul’s top universities.
A quiet woman with a stylish purse and braces on her teeth, she finds herself intimidated by southerners’ intense focus on success.
“Even between friends, people are always competing here,” says Lee, 30. “It can be really stressful to live here.”
With an accent that still gives her away as an outsider, she sometimes resorts to pretending she doesn’t belong at all.
“There are times when I’m too afraid to be tagged as a North Korean,” she says. “So when I’m talking to South Koreans, sometimes I’ll use a few English words that I remember so that people think that I’m a foreigner just learning to speak Korean. At that moment, I really want to be a foreigner.”
During the first few months after he got to the South, the former policeman thought he might become a cop again, or maybe join the army. But he’s too old to be a police recruit, and he says the army turned him down.
Since then, he’s tumbled from one job to the next: He trained to be a welder but quit because he wasn’t earning enough. He worked in a food-processing factory for a time but says his bosses refused to give him a raise.
“It was because I’m from North Korea,” he grumbles.
Since then, there have been stints with at least two construction companies. The pay is bearable, about $100 a day, more than he made in the North, but his expenses are dramatically higher. Rent, food, subways, clothing — all are far more expensive here. Plus, he’s not just supporting his immediate family anymore. He’s also channeling cash through underground brokers to relatives still across the border.
“Money,” he says at one point. “Money is the problem.”
He’s hardened since he first reached Seoul. He looks at people suspiciously, goes silent around strangers and often wonders if he’s being discriminated against.
He insists, though, that pity is the last thing he wants.
“Whatever you do, don’t pray for me,” he says.