— Cion Choi Y11 Geomun —
27th Oct. 2016.
Introduced below is a real interview of a North Korean refugee who is currently living in South Korea. His words have enlightened and inspired a lot of us. Our motivation to help North Korean refugee settlement in South Korea is lit up – the story has moved our hearts. I hope by reading this, you will be able to feel the same. Please note that these sentences are translations of his words, which were delivered in Korean. The interview explains his journey and his experiences, as well as the emotions that this resilient man has felt along the way. These are his words…
“My name is Lee Seung-Joo and I am a North Korean refugee. I escaped from North Korea in Year 11 (1998) and lived in China for 9 years. I’m currently living in South Korea, working as a teacher in ‘Yeo-Myung’ school, which is a school for North Korean refugees in South Korea.
There are two things I’m not very good at: I can’t read maps or find ways, and I’m terrible at time management. That is because in North Korea, only wealthy families can use clocks and watches. The rest of us can’t even tell time. This just shows how unfair and backwards the North Korean society is.
Many North Korean refugees share my experiences. The reason for escaping is simple – because they are hungry. Many people think that legislative solutions such as the ‘UN declaration of human rights’ will help the North Korean people, but actually, the declaration has no effect in the country itself. Although the most basic human right is to eat, during the mid-90s, a huge majority of North Koreans died from starvation – including my father. That is when I decided to escape to China with my mother. But, mother passed away as soon as we escaped.
If I didn’t think that I would starve to death in North Korea, I wouldn’t have escaped. My brother is still there. I share a part of me with him. I lived together with him, and when father passed away, mother spent long hours away from home to sell goods to feed the family. But the business didn’t go well. One day, my brother and I went to the marketplace because we were so hungry. When we arrived, there were many kids just like us. We spent time with them together. In North Korea, these children are called ‘Kkot-Jae-Bees’, and the government doesn’t let them roam free in the streets. They capture them and put them in concentration camps.
I have spent time in that camp too. There were around 80 of us, and more or less every day, around 5 people died. It was because of several reasons. First was from malnutrition and starvation, because they rarely gave us edible food. Second was from stealing and eating food that was on the ground, which made our bodies weak and vulnerable to disease. I realized what the last reason might be after thinking about it for a long time – it was because the ‘Kkot-Jae-Bees’ didn’t have dreams. They didn’t have family, no place to go and no hope. This might have been the real reason for their young death.
Once I escaped to China, I couldn’t return to North Korea. In North Korea, I couldn’t live because of starvation, but in China, I couldn’t live through the fear of being discovered. In China, deportation of North Korean refugees back to North Korea is not uncommon. When sent back, you are not welcomed. You are put in prison, tortured, and forced to do things that cannot be expressed in words.
In 2002, I went to North Korea to find my brother. As soon as I crossed the border, the soldiers confronted me and I couldn’t find him. I escaped again, and was deported back in 2003. Then, I experienced the pain that the deported refugees from China experience. Nonetheless, I escaped again in 2004 and came to South Korea in 2008.
How did I manage to escape so many times and still survive? It was because I am talented in lying. I am in my thirties now, but because I am neither tall nor sturdy, I could pretend to be younger when the North Korean soldiers interrogated me. At that time, they couldn’t identify our age specifically because there were no family to ask and no home to visit. There was no way they could find out my real age.
If you live in China for 9 years, you will generally be able to speak fluent Chinese. However, although I lived in China for a long time, I have always isolated myself from society and have never, ever spoken to a native Chinese. I have lived trapped inside a house for two straight years in China, and have worked and slept in a barn as well. Some Chinese don’t pay lots of money for the refugee workers’ labour. It’s not because they are bad people. I think of it as a disadvantage of people who just don’t belong and aren’t protected – we just have to endure it.
Still, there were so many kind people in China too. It is because of this kindness that I could survive in China for 9 years without starving to death. There was this one person that I am very grateful towards. This person waited for me even when I had been deported back to North Korea. He didn’t move house or change his phone number for me, so that I could find him again.
After the nine hard years in China, I travelled past the Southern borders of China and went to the East Asian countries. I spent some time in the International Refugee Centre and came to South Korea. I was very lucky.
There were some refugees who went to Mongol. Many of them died. Mongol is a desert, and winter comes soon. I left China with 8 of my friends, and only 3 returned with me to Korea.
It is estimated that there are around 100,000 – 300,000 refugees in China. I’m not sure how that statistics came about, since refugees are all spread out and in hiding. There are around 30,000 refugees in South Korea and around 2000-3000 in America and Europe.
Most refugees escape from areas of North Korea that touch the Chinese border, because it is impossible to travel from the Southern region or PyeongYang without being caught in checkpoints in places like train stations. Roaming around freely using transportation is not allowed in North Korea.
I have a friend in South Korea who has escaped from North Korea a long time ago. He found his mother in China after 12 years. When he finally met him, he asked his mother why she was living in China. It turned out that his mother had been a victim of human trafficking when she escaped from North Korea.
This is actually not uncommon. My mother and sister have gone through similar experiences. Many women are captured and taken to rural regions of China against their will. Because there is not much transportation through those areas, it is very difficult for them to escape by themselves once they are taken.
I met my sister after 10 years when I came to South Korea in 2008. After being separated in 1998 when we escaped, she had also lived in China. I wanted to ask her what life was like, but I couldn’t, because I knew very well what they do to female North Korean refugees in those isolated rural areas.
These women, who live in China against their will, suffer because of unwanted pregnancy. If they ever get a chance to escape to South Korea, some people take their children with them because they can’t leave them behind. Yeo-Myung school is the school for these children. We teach them Korean and help them adapt to the South Korean society.
When I first came to Yeo-Myung school, I was 25 years old. I graduated college and became a teacher. Many students in our school ask me: “Will I be able to hang out with South Koreans even if I am a North Korean refugee?”
I tell them. It is hard. It is challenging. That is because the society still has resentment towards people who are different from ‘us’. It is because there is prejudice towards North Korean refugees. They are considered as uneducated and weak. On top of all this, they lack self-confidence themselves. We must look through these walls of prejudice and aim to recognize the similarities we share as a nation.
North Korean refugees are also known as “an early step to unity”. These 30,000 North Korean refugees still has a family back in North Korea and they wish to return. They could play a pivotal role in unifying South and North Korea. Although life as a refugee is hard to endure, with the help and support of the people who are confident and open-minded, I believe that we will be able to step up into the world of modern globalization with gleaming self-esteem.”
Below are further questions and answers regarding Mr. Lee’s personal opinions and experiences.
Q. How does the South Korean government support North Korean refugees?
The money given for settlement is 4,000,000 won. If the refugee has a family, a small home is given as well. However, since most refugees escape North Korea through the help of Chinese brokers, they have to pay the fees, and 4 million won isn’t enough.
They get educated for the first time in ‘Hanawon’, which is a public centre for North Korean refugee education. Most refugees shed tears on their first night back from ‘Hanawon’ school, because they are able to express their emotions for the first time. The sense of relief and sadness all comes out as tears that they have been holding back.
Q. Why do some refugees want to return to North Korea?
Personally, I have never thought of going back. It could be because some Chinese brokers who are looking to get the money trick some people into escaping North Korea. (A very small minority) Also, for people who had power and wealth in North Korea, they regret escaping because they have to start all over again in South Korea, fighting the prejudice that exists towards refugees. However, the biggest reason for the majority of the people who wish to return would be because they miss their families back in North Korea.
Q. What was it like to see South Korea for the first time? Was it very different from what you imagined?
When I was in China, I watched the 2002 World Cup and the presidential election of President Noh Mu-Heon, as well as Korean news and drama, so I was a little aware of what it would be like.
At first, I didn’t try imagine what it would be like at all. I just simply wanted to be somewhere safe, where I could feed my family and myself. So I didn’t expect much. When I first arrived, I was quite shocked by the amount of air pollution in Seoul and the way urban people paid little attention to their neighbors, since in North Korea, community spirit is very strong even though people are poor.
Q. What do you think will happen to the current North Korean regime in the future?
If it were to collapse, it would have collapsed in the mid-90s when almost half the population died of starvation. The current regime isn’t afraid of the people’s living standards declining at all. There are extreme levels of punishment and supervision that civil protest is near impossible.
Propaganda to portray the Kim dictators as heroes is so widely and deeply integrated into the people’s minds that most North Koreans think that protesting equals betraying the country and lowering the country’s national pride. Brainwashing is prominent throughout all years of education – which is why I think education needs to change first for the North Korean society to change.
Q. How did you learn about the world outside North Korea?
I didn’t learn about the world before escaping. There was no outside connection, and I had no idea what it was like. I initially planned to get out of the country, earn money, and return. However, when I actually escaped I realized that earning money, as a refugee, is not as easy as I thought. After one or two years, I wasn’t able to return at all.
Q. Are there any novels or films about life as a North Korean refugee that you would recommend?
There is a movie called ‘Crossing’ that shows the journey of North Korean refugees. It was so realistic. It shocked my heart when I first watched it. It makes me wonder how they portrayed the journey so realistically.