Authors: Cion Choi, Gabriella Kim, Nancy Kwon of the Amnesty Society

Date written: 28th November 2017


This article is an account from a former school teacher of North Korea, who lived in North Korea, China and is currently living in South Korea. Through her spectacular journey, she learnt to understand and articulate the hardships that North Korean refugees have to endure, especially how the minds of North Korean children are affected. Although the article touches on a very sensitive and emotional issue, there are some unexpected turns of laughter: the most surprising thing about South Korea for her was that everyone looks so pretty!


We have been so fortunate to have the opportunity to interview this strong, independent woman as part of the Amnesty society of NLCS Jeju. Focused on women’s rights, freedom and education in North Korea, this article is indeed more than just the usual speculations about the nation still under a veil.


  1. Freedom


We normally perceive North Korea as a country with absolutely no freedom – people are forced to live under the Kim family’s control without opportunities to speak out for themselves. This personal anecdote from our interviewee reveal the truth of North Korean society: up to what extent is the ‘truth.’


One of the very first things she pointed out when asked about the question of freedom was the right to earn money according to one’s efforts – the more you work, the more you earn. This very simple ideal of capitalism was, in fact, surprising for her. In North Korea, this was impossible; regardless of how hard you worked, everyone received the exact same amount of income. Therefore, it was rather ironical for her as a past North Korean to find South Koreans leaving for America, stating that they would like even more freedom.


The second issue the interviewee raised was the lack of freedom of speech. Apparently, everyone in North Korea is prevented from even privately talking about their own opinions. For instance, if a group of people talk about issues that are ‘disturbing’ and banned from discussion, one option for them would be to conceal the conversation – this is what would ‘normally’ happen. However, the North Korean regime does not tolerate any form of criticism. Every single person who disobeys the laws of the nation are executed in front of the public. Consequently, even as they are socialising, people have no other option but to praise the Kim family.


The North Korean government have also developed a system of self-surveillance, where the people monitor each other for 24 hours everyday. If a person openly denounces the regime, a spy will report him or her to the police. There is absolutely no mercy and tolerance for such ‘criminals.’ Therefore, people are always sensitive and careful of what they say.


Another notable factor was how people had more freedom in their expression in terms of clothing. The interviewee claims to have loved the idea of wearing sleeveless shirts, make-up, and receiving tattoos. In North Korea, such sights would be considered inappropriate. In addition, clothes that had English phrases written on them were prohibited completely. Even if a person is an adult and a teacher, he or she cannot keep their hair long – hair should be kept short, and if it was longer than the restrictions set they were accused of being the supporters of capitalism.


The interviewee also mentioned the relationship between opposite genders – certainly, in Korea and most other European countries, dating amongst teenagers is not a major problem. In North Korea, apparently, people are banned from dating. If a couple are caught by a teacher or another adult, they are forced to break up immediately and some are even kicked out of school. As young people were not allowed to date, most marriages took place with their parents’ intervention.


Most of us take the rights listed above as a privilege and accept them as natural. However, we should, from time to time, look back at ourselves and appreciate what is given to us.


  1. Education


 Furthermore, freedom isn’t the only thing that has been locked away from North Korean people. One of their most basic need and right – education – has also been removed from their lives as well as the media which could have supported them to know of such development. Of course, there are certain levels of education provided to them, divided into certain levels such as elementary school, middle school, high school, and university. Yet they are for the most basic knowledge, focused on brainwashing the young students rather than actually educating them with subjects like science and humanities. She told us that the students must learn subjects that are based on the words of the ‘Kim family, which form the basis of the education provided, with other subjects taught as though they were originated from the Kim family’s words’.


 In such a state, the students were diverted from their passion and freedom to choose what they wish to learn. They only ‘do what the government tells them to do’. There is absolutely no choice given to them to choose what they want to learn, and what they wish to do in life. Thus it all comes back to the decision of the government. Even in their University years, they are forced to learn topics related to the work of the Kim family. Although they can actually learn ‘knowledge’ by then, they are still regulated and terminated by names like the ‘Kim Jeong-il History department’, and the ‘Kim Il-sung History department’. Whatever they learn, is also to be only used for the development of the government and the country. At the end of their University years, the students are allocated to specific jobs in specific areas by the government. If they don’t follow these orders, the only thing that may follow is death, so the students ultimately have to follow the given paths.


 Yet this lack of choice also brings a positive impact on its people. North Korea has a high satisfaction rate. There are no people that commit suicide. No women are infertile. Everyone enjoys life as it is, as there is no other option provided for them. On the other hand, South Korea, an OECD country that has a high GDP, has high suicide and stress rates. Since we are in a competitive community, we ‘have to compete against each other’ to sustain our positions and lives. This causes stress and anxiety to most people, which eventually substantially influences our lives.


 Thinking about it this way, North Koreans have an easier life compared to us. As she told us, ‘there is no reason to be stressed.’ ‘Even if you don’t study, your scores shall rise. It doesn’t even impact your graduation, thus you don’t have to work hard, as long as you follow the orders given from the government.’ ‘You have to be happy’. Why wouldn’t you be? If you know no other way of doing so, if you don’t even know what course you could follow, and are trying to ‘live in the way that the government tells you to live in’, there would be absolutely no stress. Or else, the only other option is working in the mines, which is not a good alternative. With the freedom of choice, you are both free and limited.


  1. What we can do


Reading these stories about how difficult and disparate the lives of North Korean refugees would be like, one might wonder: what can I do? According to our interviewee, it is better to make people feel included rather than to simply give what they need. There is a saying in Korean: “Do not give them the fish, teach them how to catch the fish.” Within context, it means the focus for enlivening North Korean refugees’ lives should be their emancipation and self-sufficiency. Simply giving what people need on a hand-to-mouth basis means that once the supply is cut, they cannot live their own lives independently because they had been relying too deeply on what was given. We cannot solve all the problems for them but we can certainly help them address it themselves.


For her, a warm word of welcome or a caring question like “how are you” is what makes her feel most included. Most North Korean refugees who live in South Korea don’t have family. They usually cannot afford to escape North Korea in groups, let alone as individuals, which is why they have to leave their family behind. Especially on traditional Korean holidays such as Chuseok when the entire family gathers to celebrate, they worry and reminisce about their family. This is when we can be understanding and inclusive, holding out a hand for them to grasp when they desperately need company. She says, “there are times when I want to die as I think about my family I left behind. When I was in North Korea, my life was so hard that I didn’t have time to think about my family, but in South Korea where my life is more comfortable, I genuinely wish for my family to be here with me to share this blessing.” She also has difficulty acquiring religion, because she has never experienced religion before. She cannot easily find friends either. So friendship, small talk and a simple act of kindness is all that she asks for.


Next time you encounter a lost soul, simply try saying hello. It could turn out to be a life-changing moment for you and the one you saved.


Please bear in mind that the information written here is an anonymous anecdote from one person only, not intended to be offensive or representative.