The ASIAN BOSS youtube channel recently released two videos in which North Korean refugees are interviewed. In the first video refugees are asked about their lives prior to coming to South Korea and in the second video, they discuss their experiences of living in the South. They are well worth watching for anybody interested in North Korea, but for those with less time, the most interesting points will be summarized below.
Many of those leaving North Korea have initially no intention of going to South Korea. Just like the refugees interviewed, they go to China in search of food. Some come to make some money and go back. Others live in China longer. However, as these two refugees experienced, China will not tolerate North Korean refugees making a living, and actively chases them down. It was around the time of the Beijing Olympics that they felt they could no longer be in China. One of them recounted that although he and his mother had not much hope of making it to South Korea, they preferred to die trying to find freedom than to die after being sent back.
Although the search of food used to be the main reason for people to leave, these refugees thought that now most North Koreans leave mainly to find freedom. As an illustration of the lack of freedom, they shared some awful details of public executions and punishment that awaited those who dared to criticize the government or watch South Korean drama. When the starving North Koreans crossed the border in search of food during the famine in the late nineties, they also discovered how rich and free China was compared to their own country and how much they had been lied to. In this way, the famine caused two kinds of refugees, first those starving for food and later those starving for freedom.
Having been failed by their own country and chased out of China, they were very much touched by the simple words of welcome they received when first arriving in South Korea. They could not understand how their supposed enemy could show such kindness, when those they had expected kindness from had shown no concern for their lives.
However, life in South Korea would prove to be difficult. After an initial time of interrogation, orientation and training, they were released into society. They soon realized how different South Korea was. Both mentioned how North Koreans are quite a happy people in spite of their poverty. They would know their neighbors, look out for each other and smile a lot. They found people in South Korea being immensely stressed out and busy. They worry about making money all day. Students are so busy with studying and people seem unapproachable and cold. Everybody seems in competition with each other.
One of the refugees realized that he would never be able to compete on their level and became suicidal. Then he changed his mind and instead decided to help other people in danger of committing suicide (suicide rates in South Korea are among the highest in the world).
As well as adapting to a high-stress culture, the refugees were faced with prejudices. They found people often assumed they were poor, ignorant and brainwashed. When applying to companies, they were told not to reveal their North Korean background. Sometimes they would be taken for spies.
Lastly, they were asked about reunification. It was surprising to them how little South Koreans were educated about this and, as a result, how little they care. In North Korea, it is a much bigger issue and everybody wants it to happen. However, even though these refugees very much want reunification, they also fear that it would get very messy if it was to happen soon. There is still much work to be done in improving mutual understanding between North and South Koreans.
Contributing Author: Kajsa
Kajsa lives and works in Korea with her family and writes about the political, economical, and spiritual development of the country.