Photo: Astrelok/Shutterstock

North Korean Defectors: Escaping the Reign of Kim Jong-Il

North Korea South Korea Mongolia Russia Travel
by Iris Chung Dec 19, 2011
This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program.

“I wasn’t human,” Joseph recalled. “I had no fat at all, no muscles, just skin. My hair was falling out. My eyes were sunken in. Looking in the mirror, I asked myself, ‘Is this me?’”

Joseph (a pseudonym this defector has adopted for protection) left North Korea nearly three years ago – something which, up until the last decade, very few people did. With North Korea’s weakening economy, mid-1990s famine, and easing of border controls with China, there are now some 23,000 defectors living in South Korea. Many experience forced labor, starvation, human trafficking, sexual assault, and other abuses in their journeys to get to the South.

Upon their arrival in South Korea, where they are considered as citizens, defectors continue to face enormous challenges. On average, they tend to be physically smaller, less educated, and less healthy than South Koreans. They experience language and cultural differences, face discrimination and stereotyping, and struggle to find employment in a competitive, capitalist society.

Despite government programs and a growing number of organizations that provide support to defectors, many are discouraged to discover the small extent to which most South Koreans seem to care.


In the hip Hongdae neighborhood of Seoul, Joseph opened the door to his office in a drab anonymous building, where he works as a volunteer for the Young Defectors’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights. He was thin with an earnest face, wearing pressed black slacks and a white button-down shirt. Clutching his stomach from a bout of mild indigestion, he apologized for his illness and offered me a seat.

From a young age, Joseph had a special talent for fixing televisions and radios. Since he wasn’t able to attend school, he apprenticed with his friends who fixed electronics to learn enough of the basics to make a living. One day while making some repairs, he stumbled upon a strange voice.

Despite the fact that North Korea fixes the channels for all televisions and radios to receive only government broadcasts, Joseph had happened to pick up a signal from KBS radio in South Korea.

Listening to South Korean radio is considered a grave offense in North Korea – a crime worse than murder. Getting caught means facing punishment for three generations: not only endangering yourself, but also your parents and your children. Though Joseph realized the seriousness of the situation, he was immensely allured by the South Korean announcer’s voice.

“The voice was too attractive not to hear. Why? Have you ever heard a North Korean announcer? Their accents are very strong, so harsh, as if they would hit you if you were to dare to even slightly touch them. Compared to that, this voice was so nice and gentle, so inviting and sweet, like it was melting my flesh. I fell in love with her voice. I realized there is another world where people use that sweet voice—and that completely shocked me.”

Hearing that voice made Joseph question why Kim Jong Il had kept him from knowing this different world. He continued listening to South Korean radio for the next two years.

“It completely changed my thoughts,” he says. “I learned the truth through the radio.”

When Joseph became a listener in 2000, he was just a young soldier positioned at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea. He was only seventeen years old – the standard age for joining the North Korean army – and weighed 41 kilograms; a year and a half year later, his weight had dropped to 31 kilograms, or 68 pounds.

In 2003, Joseph made his first escape into China. Though only 198 kilometers lie between the capitals of Pyongyang and Seoul, the journey of a defector is a circuitous one. The most common route involves escaping to China before crossing to other countries to locate a South Korean embassy or consulate. Defectors often make their first escape into China by crossing the Yalu or Tumen Rivers. North Korean border guards are instructed to shoot anyone trying to pass, but many accept bribes and allow people to wade through or walk across frozen waters.

Joseph crossed at Musan, a county in the central North Hamgyong province that borders China across the Tumen River. North Hamgyong is one of the poorest areas in North Korea and one of the most prone to famine; it is the region from which most defectors come.

Just seven days later, Joseph was caught by Chinese police officials.

Citing a bilateral repatriation agreement with North Korea from 1986, China claims it is obligated to return all border crossers. As a formal ally of North Korea, China seeks to avoid straining its relations with the regime or encouraging a situation in which a mass increase of defectors destabilizes the region. This means that defectors live in constant fear of being found and sent back. North Koreans in China live in danger of being discovered not only by the Chinese authorities, but by anyone who might turn them in as undocumented immigrants in exchange for a monetary reward.

Defectors suffer severe consequences upon their return, from sentencing at prison camps to death by firing squad. North Korean authorities interrogate defectors for their crimes and motives for defecting, and are particularly brutal toward those suspected of coming into contact with South Koreans, religious groups, or other foreigners.

When Joseph was repatriated to North Korea, he was ordered to return to Shinuiju, his hometown on the west coast of North Korea, where he was to face a second investigation. The train Joseph boarded en route to Shinuiju was in poor condition, operating without any glass in its windows. Guarded by North Korean officials, Joseph waited as the train began to depart, thinking of how he could time his escape. If he jumped from the window at that moment, the train would be moving too slowly and the officials would easily catch him. But if he waited too long, the train would be moving too quickly for him to survive.

Finally Joseph jumped. Moments later, the train stopped suddenly, in one of the regular electricity shortages that result from North Korea’s poor infrastructure. Though he tried his best to run away, he had so little energy and muscle that he couldn’t get very far. His voice lowering, Joseph describes how the North Korean officials caught him and beat him. Holding him against the train rail, they stomped on his knees, forcing them to fold backwards until he heard the cracking sound of his leg breaking.

After his interrogation in Shinuiju, he was taken to a political prison camp.

“I can’t even say what I endured [at the prison] was painful because the women endured more pain than me. There are certain things I saw them do to women that I can’t even talk about because it’s too shameful,” Joseph says.

He remembers hearing about one woman in particular who had served in the North Korean navy and had been regarded as a loyal party member. When her term was finished, she struggled to feed her family. She decided to cross into China, where she was sold and raped, and ended up living with a South Korean man. She was pregnant with his child when she was repatriated to North Korea.

“North Korea talks about ‘Korean nation’ and reunification, but if you are impregnated by a South Korean,” says Joseph, “you are considered a political prisoner.” The officers waited until the woman’s pregnancy had reached its eighth month, then tied her arms and legs down on a table to perform an “abortion.” One of the men introduced himself as a doctor. Without giving the woman any anesthesia, he thrust his bare hands into the woman’s vagina and yanked the baby from her uterus.

“They did this because they considered the woman and her child to be traitors of the country. When they did it, the baby was alive,” Joseph says, quietly. The woman pleaded for the doctor to spare her crying baby, but he only tossed it to the military dogs. Watching her baby get torn into pieces, the mother passed out, laying still while bleeding. The guards took her for dead and brought her to a pile of cadavers.

Thankfully, she was still alive and managed to escape again crossing the Tumen River. In China, a kind Joseonjok man, or Chinese person of Korean descent, helped her until she recovered and came to South Korea, where she lives today. She has given numerous testimonies to the U.S. Department of State and international human rights organizations, which arranged for her to receive an experimental surgery to repair her uterus. She gave birth to a healthy daughter last year.

At the prison camp, Joseph tried to kill himself. When he failed, he considered his three options: being shot to death, fleeing, or attempting suicide again. The only way for him to possibly live, Joseph realized, was to escape from the camp. After about six months of imprisonment, he fled North Korea for a second time in June of 2003.

In the following two years, Joseph was caught again by Chinese border agents, deported to North Korea, and once more, escaped.

“I looked so small and so weak that they didn’t keep a close watch on me. They didn’t think I would have a chance to escape, and that’s why I was able to,” Joseph explains. There were so many people where Joseph was imprisoned that the guards ran out of handcuffs and started tying the weaker men and women using shoelaces.

When he defected to China for his third time, Joseph immediately set his sights on getting to Vietnam, in order to go from there to South Korea, where he would be considered a citizen.

The defectors who choose to leave China often use what’s referred to as the “underground railroad,” a loose connection of individuals who guide them to other countries where they can apply for political asylum. The underground railroad generally has two main routes from China: over the Mongolian border; or passing through Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, or Burma to Thailand.

The paths change constantly to avoid detection, but the most preferred route goes through either Burma or Laos, and crosses the Mekong River to end in the Chiang Saen district, located in Thailand’s northernmost province of Chiang Rai. Although Thailand has intensified measures to prevent the illegal entry of North Koreans, it does not repatriate them for humanitarian reasons. Instead, defectors are sent to overcrowded refugee detention centers while their cases are processed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangkok. Due to the sheer numbers of people, the process usually takes approximately seven to eight months, but can take up to three years.

Some defectors are guided in their escape by South Korean religious groups, while others pledge to pay local brokers anywhere from $2,500 to $15,000 USD once in South Korea. These brokers are usually Chinese or Joseonjok who are familiar with navigating the border areas.

The journey is difficult and dangerous, involving hikes through minefields, mountains, and jungle, bumpy bus rides on back roads, scattered police checkpoints, and random crackdowns at rail stations and aboard trains.

In July of 2005, Joseph escaped by traveling south through China and crossing the river to Vietnam. In Hanoi, Joseph was stopped by a security guard at the entrance of the building where the South Korean embassy was located. Upon questioning, he claimed he was a South Korean teenager who had been traveling with his father and had lost him in Hanoi. Because his father had all of his documents, he explained, he would need help from the embassy in order to return to home. The guard let him into the South Korean embassy located on the eighth floor. There, he revealed himself as a North Korean refugee to a South Korean official and pleaded for asylum.

Little to Joseph’s knowledge, a new round of six-party talks had begun that same month between South Korea, North Korea, the U.S., China, Russia, and Japan. In addition, border controls in Vietnam had grown significantly tighter since the year before, when the Vietnamese government jeopardized its relationship with the DPRK by permitting 468 defectors to fly to South Korea. This combination of factors made the South Korean government less willing to compromise in its dialogue with North Korea. “South Korea is not as good of a country as you think,” the official told Joseph. “If you speak Chinese, go live in China or return to North Korea.” Then he turned Joseph over to the Vietnamese police for arrest.

About a week after his capture, Joseph was deported back to China. After Hanoi, Joseph says, “My hope vanished completely.” Feeling resentment and hatred towards South Korea, Joseph decided to stay in the southern part of China, where he spent the next two years living in poor conditions, and struggling to learn the language. Although China’s sizable Joseonjok community of over one million citizens of Korean descent makes it easier for defectors to blend in, they face the constant threat of being caught by the Chinese police or North Korean agents.

The number of defectors hiding in China is estimated at anywhere from 10,000 (the official Chinese estimate) to 300,000 or more. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees believes that at least some or all of the defector population in China is wrongly repatriated and should be granted refugee status under international law with certain rights, resources, and protection. According to the UNHCR, even if North Koreans were not refugees when they crossed the border, the fear of persecution upon their return qualifies them as such. But per international law, the right to identify a refugee’s status and to protect refugees belongs to the territorial country, and the Chinese government considers all North Korean defectors not as refugees, but as illegal “economic migrants” who cross the border for economic reasons.

Consequently, North Korean defectors in China are ineligible to seek aid from the UNHCR. The Chinese government severely restricts the UNHCR’s activities —refusing UNHCR representatives entry in northeast China where many defectors and Joseonjok reside, and guarding foreign consulates and the UNHCR office in Beijing to prevent North Koreans attempting to seek asylum. Intended to be nonpolitical and strictly humanitarian, the UNHCR is not mandated to politically intervene.

Joseph describes his time in China as “living in fear like an animal.” Once in China, defectors find work and shelter through relatives, activists, or strangers, but must move continually to avoid being detected by authorities. During this period, Joseph eventually became a Christian, and through his religion, found himself overcoming the misconceptions he had once held of South Korean people as godless.

Choosing to believe there was a purpose behind everything he had endured, he decided it was his mission to help others like him. With that in mind, Joseph resolved once more to get to South Korea.

This time, he escaped to Russia, jumping a barbed wire fence marking the high-security zone where the Russian, Chinese, and North Korean borders meet at the Tumen River. It is estimated that there are some 40,000 North Koreans employed in the far eastern area of Russia, where laborers were dispatched as prisoners to generate hard currency and help pay off Pyongyang’s debt to Moscow after the two countries struck a deal in 1967. Now, only those North Koreans in good government standing are allowed to come to Russia and work for private logging companies.

By some accounts, 50 percent of a worker’s salary goes to the North Korean government and 35 percent to certain Russian and North Korean companies. Working as loggers, the North Koreans serve as cheap labor for the Russian timber industry. They toil for 15-hour days, cutting huge amounts of timber and living in either humid or freezing forest conditions, isolated from the local people. Camp guards subject them to frequent beatings and sentence those who criticize the North Korean government to solitary confinement cells for “ideological crimes.” An estimated 10,000 workers have fled their logging sites and live in hiding. The fear of being returned to their work site, or worse, to North Korea, prevents many from contacting the Russian authorities.

Although Russia is generally unwilling to grant refugee status to anyone from outside the former Soviet Union, it has adopted a policy of tolerating North Korean defectors on its territory. But its officials have not always abided by this—while some grant asylum to defectors after they complete a prison sentence for charges of illegal entry, others deport them.

In Russia, Joseph planned to get stamped by the UNHCR, but while seeking refuge at a Korean church, he was arrested by the Russian authorities. He spent the next 100 days in prison, which was directly across from the North Korean embassy. The North Korean government claimed him as its citizen, and accused him of two crimes: believing in God and escaping from the army, offenses akin to treason.

As he waited for the verdict, Joseph was bewildered to find himself surrounded by bread and television sets.

“Even when North Korean people don’t go to jail, they don’t have anything to eat. In Russian jail, there is so much bread that the prisoners don’t even eat it. They give food to pigeons, throw it away in the trash, flush it down the toilet…I was crying on the inside, just watching it,” he says.

From his prison cell, Joseph watched crowds of South Koreans on television, shouting and demonstrating in the street. It was 2008, and President Lee Myung Bak’s deal to resume importing U.S. beef had led to a series of the country’s biggest anti-government protests in 20 years. Joseph wondered how it was possible that while he was risking his life just to enter the country, its citizens were worked up over mad cow disease.

“I couldn’t believe what was happening in South Korea. Maybe it’s beautiful to do this [in a] democracy to better the world, but I really couldn’t understand. They have meat, but they don’t want to eat it? And they demonstrated because they don’t want to eat it?”

“But if you cross the DMZ, there are tons of people starving to death. North Koreans really want to eat, but they can’t demonstrate. You try to escape because you want to have freedom of speech, freedom to say what you feel, but that’s a crime in North Korea. It’s two different worlds on either side of the 38th parallel.”

About three months later, Joseph was released from prison and granted amnesty by the UNHCR in Russia, under protection of the South Korean embassy. He finally succeeded in obtaining official refugee status and was entered into the international registry of refugees. After his release in Moscow, he discovered that South Korean NGOs, civic groups, lawyers, and Christians had been working on his behalf.

“I realized democracy is a really good thing because a lot of people made petitions to the government for one person—just me,” he reflects. “You can’t ever imagine that in North Korea.“

At the end of October 2008, more than five years after his first escape, Joseph set foot in South Korea.


Young Hee rose to the podium at the University of Seoul, wearing a navy blazer top over a skirt and sneakers. A pretty girl with long bangs and an ivory face, she smiled calmly before addressing the audience that had gathered for the Young North Korean Defectors Forum.

Growing up in North Korea, Young Hee was sometimes happy, such as at birthday parties or family gatherings to celebrate traditional holidays.

“But we had so much limited freedom,” she says. She remembers 1996 as being the most difficult period, saying, “Back then, there was no running water, so every day we would get water from the river. There was no electricity so we were always living in darkness. The markets were full of beggar children just wandering around and so many of them lying down in the street. You may have seen pictures and documentaries of this – it’s not part of some public relations campaign, it’s real. Back then, I thought [such starvation] was natural and didn’t even question it, just like how I thought Kim Jong Il was God. When I used to see [children] in the street, I used to wonder why they were lying there. I didn’t realize they were dead from starvation.”

Young Hee first left North Korea with her mother when she was ten years old. The only reason she agreed to go, she says, is because she “really wanted to eat bananas,” a rare fruit in North Korea.

“My mom said if I went to China, I could eat a lot of bananas, and I was hungry, so I followed her.”

Young Hee and her mother crossed the border into China, leaving her father and younger sibling behind. Because men are used for manual labor in North Korea, it is much harder for them to leave undetected. Nearly 80% of North Koreans who flee are women. Eight or nine of every ten of these women are then sold by trafficking gangs who approach women along the border areas to lure them with promises of finding food, shelter, and jobs in China. North Korean women are not technically considered victims of trafficking, however, because they cross the border voluntarily.

In China, the women are lined up against a wall during the night to be assessed, picked, and bought. Many of the slave brokers are men, former North Korean refugees who have settled in South Korea but face job discrimination and struggle financially. Depending on their age and appearance, the women are sold for between $260 USD and $2,600 USD; the going rate for a 25 year-old is approximately $720 USD. Their children, meanwhile, are usually sent to orphanages.

It is when the brokers bring the women to a buyer or confine them in an apartment that most of them realize they have been deceived into forced marriages. China’s one-child policy and preference for boys, combined with the exodus of Chinese women to urban regions, has created a shortage of women in rural areas and strong incentives to buy North Korean wives. The bachelors tend to be Chinese or ethnic Korean-Chinese in their forties or fifties, who seek someone to care for their aging parents or give them children. Many live in poverty or with a disability, making them undesirable candidates as husbands to Chinese women.

It is common for women to be trafficked in criminal circles, being sold to one farmer, raped, and then swapped to another farmer as prostitutes or brides in exchange for younger girls. Other women work their promised jobs in the Chinese “tech” industry, which ends up meaning stripping for webcasts or acting as sex slaves in brothels or karaoke bars. The women who are forced into prostitution face even more risks than those forced into marriages: if caught, they face far more severe punishment back home. Some brokers further take advantage of the women’s vulnerability by sexually harassing or raping them and threatening arrest.

Young Hee’s mother was sold to a Chinese man, so they went to live with him in a village located deep in the mountains.

“We tried to escape, but it was impossible,” Young Hee recalls. “It was a very secret area, and all the villagers kept a close eye on us.”

When the Chinese police arrested her and her mother two years later, Young Hee says, “We literally thanked them because they got us out of that village.”

Many men take advantage of their wives’ illegal status by physically and sexually abusing them, and women are helpless to go to the authorities because they fear deportation. Women who have plans to return to North Korea to provide their family with money are distraught to discover they are essentially trapped. To prevent the “bride” from fleeing or slipping back to North Korea, the husband’s relatives take turns watching her, or the women are locked up, chained, or stripped of their clothing.

When Young Hee and her mother were captured by the Chinese police, they were repatriated and imprisoned in the city of Shinuiju in February of 2000, just months before the first inter-Korean summit between Kim Jong Il and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, which was scheduled to take place in June.

North Korea was busy preparing for the historic North-South meeting. “Kim Jong Il was in such a good mood that all of the defectors [in our area] were released,” Young Hee chuckles.

When Young Hee and her mother left the prison, they headed to their hometown in Hoeryong, located in the far north of North Korea. The journey from Shinuiju normally would have taken a single day, but because the train kept breaking down, the journey lasted a week. Young Hee says, “We had no money. We had nothing to eat. We literally didn’t eat anything—for seven days on the train. After seven days, I was so hungry that for the first time, I nearly could have grabbed and eaten humans in front of me.”

After getting to Hoeryong, they found that Young Hee’s father had remarried and had another child. Young Hee and her mother escaped to China again one week later. They lived there for the next six years, during which they were repatriated another three times: in 2002, 2003, and 2005. While each time, Young Hee’s mother was subject to severe forced labor, Young Hee suffered much less because she was a minor.

There’s another reason why Young Hee was able to escape harsh punishment, she says. Starting around 2001, there were too many people to imprison, so the North Korean government began giving leniency to those who had avoided interacting with South Koreans and Christians, and to those who had escaped out of hunger. To free up space at the prison camps, defectors were sentenced for shorter periods of one or two months before being released to their hometowns.

As Young Hee got older, she began noticing differences between life in China and North Korea.

“The size of the corn in China is so big, even though technically it comes from the same earth or ground across the border. Geographically it’s so close, but the lifestyle is so different. And then on this side of the border, everyone is always hungry. People are living only to eat. In the morning, you eat wondering when the next time you eat will be—those are the kinds of things you think about. But in China, you live so freely. People are living because there is another reason to live. This is what I was comparing.”

Although Young Hee had some relatives in China, they never offered help, leaving her mother little choice but to marry again each time they crossed the border.

“Yeah, my mom did marry quite a lot,” Young Hee laughs quietly.

Consensual marriage of North Korean women to men in China has become increasingly more common, with women consenting to be sold as brides or agreeing to arranged marriages by brokers to avoid repatriation or the risks of living as a single undocumented migrant. Many marriages, however, fall in the middle of the spectrum between forced and consensual. In these cases, marriage is a means of survival, providing basic needs like food, shelter, some means of security and protection and, in some cases, emotional attachment or contentment.

Marriages with undocumented North Korean women, however, are not legally binding, and if the wives are caught, they face deportation. Any children resulting from these marriages are also considered illegal residents, ineligible to receive health care or schooling. Only if the mother is caught without proper documentation and repatriated back to North Korea can her children obtain Chinese citizenship. In such cases, fathers are often unable or unwilling to accept the responsibility, leaving the children homeless and stateless.

Thanks to special arrangements made by the man still married to her mother – or “that father” as Young Hee refers to him – she was able to start going to school in China when she was 12 years old. Young Hee attended school until 2006, the year when she and her mother made plans to leave for South Korea.

But Young Hee didn’t want to go. Not only would the trip would be life-threatening, but she also felt negatively about South Korea.

“In North Korea, from when we are young, we are raised to believe that South Korea is the colony of America,” she explains. “The Hallyu [the South Korean pop culture wave] was happening while I was in China, so I knew about Rain and Lee Hyori and other pop stars, but my impressions were so strong that I still didn’t really want to go.”

In the end, what convinced Young Hee was her dream to go to college – an aspiration that would be nearly unattainable with her illegal status.

“In China, I can’t get citizenship until the day I die,” she says. If she went to South Korea, her mother promised, she could become a legal citizen and attend university. For Young Hee, this was a risk worth taking.

To get to South Korea, Young Hee and her mother took the Mongolian route by crossing the Chinese border into Mongolia and passing through the Gobi Desert. Although Mongolia’s policy is not to repatriate North Koreans, the journey to get there is a risky one.

The trek through the desert is grueling, the environment is harsh and disorienting, and in order to survive, refugees must be found and arrested by Mongolian border police, who turn defectors over to be deported to South Korea.

“There were still people trying to cross [the desert], dying there if they weren’t found by the army,” Young Hee says, remembering those she encountered along her path.

“It was February then. It was freezing, and the wind was blowing so hard,” Young Hee recalls. “Since it was winter, there was nothing around, no trees. So you can’t get a sense of direction or figure out where you’re going. You go one way, then end up retracing your steps and realize you’re back on the same path.”

After wandering the desert for fourteen hours, Young Hee and her mother were finally rescued and brought to the South Korean embassy in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar.

Young Hee is now a student at Seoul’s Yonsei University, one of the top three most prestigious academic institutions in South Korea.

“I’m so happy,” she says.

But she can’t forget the South Korean film Crossing, which depicts the true stories of defectors who crossed into China before passing through the Mongolian desert.

“I cried so much watching it,” Young Hee says, thinking back to the number of her escapes while growing up. “Once I knew what freedom was, I started feeling like even if I were to get caught ten times, I would still return ten more times to China. I believe that is why North Koreans keep escaping even if they are punished for it. It is because of freedom.”


Handsome with a tanned, broad face, Gwang Cheol looked preppy in his khaki pants, white v-neck tee, and light blue blazer as he greeted a group of volunteers at a language academy in Shinchon, Seoul.

Gwang Cheol saw his first public execution when he was just 14 years old, on a mandatory school field trip. Education in North Korea is free and compulsory from age four to fifteen. There were other students younger than him on the field trip, he recalls. He watched four soldiers be shot to death, three bullets each. It was “the cruelest thing.” He understood the regime’s message immediately, thinking, “I should never do anything the country doesn’t want me to do.”

Viewing public executions, Gwang Cheol says, is a part of North Korea’s education system, particularly for teenagers who are beginning to build their identity.

“We learn that other cultures exist because we learn about geography. But documents show us how capitalism makes you so poor and live in devastation.” Other defectors have testified to being frequently shown pictures of starving people in Africa as evidence that the rest of the world suffers more than North Korea.

Hunger, however, was what ultimately drove Gwang Cheol to first escape in 1999 at age 17.

“Everyone was trying to escape because of the famine,” he says. “I had a fantasy of China. I thought life was good, that you can earn a lot of money there.” Gwang Cheol lived close to the border, making it easier for him to escape, but his experience in crossing was still “really hard.” He was astonished by the abundance of wealth he encountered on the other side.

“But the big shock was about South Korea,” he goes on. Gwang Cheol was disappointed to discover his education had been based on misinformation, and surprised to learn that South Korea was so economically prosperous. “North Korea doesn’t even refer to South Korea as a country,” he says. “I only knew it as a colony of America.”

North Koreans are educated to believed that the famine will end once reunification happens, Gwang Cheol says, but that the two countries should be unified under the rule of Kim Jong Il.

In China, Gwang Cheol realized he would have to live in hiding. Because male defectors usually find work outdoors in farming or construction, they are more likely to be deported than women.

“They think of North Korean women as money,” Gwang Cheol says, recounting a story about a woman he knew who had married an ethnic Korean. She’d been kidnapped and sold by a neighbor while the husband was out of town.

Fearful of being found, without any rights or identification, Gwang Cheol realized he needed to get to South Korea. He attempted to approach the South Korean embassies in China, but this only led to his capture by the Chinese police, who arrested him and put him on a flight to North Korea. Although Gwang Cheol was terrified of what awaited him when he landed, he was elated to board an airplane for the first time.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he recalls, acknowledging the cruel irony of the moment. “I didn’t know if I was going to die, but I was excited to take a plane. I saved all the bread I was given on the flight, but it was taken from me as soon as I got off the plane….I had never been to Pyongyang. It was my childhood dream because it’s not a place where just anyone can go.”

Back in North Korea, Gwang Cheol faced interrogation about his activities in China, and denied having any South Korean or Christian ideologies. He was taken to a political prison camp to perform hard labor and undergo reeducation. Given a single handful of corn to survive on each day, Gwang Cheol was so hungry that he started to go blind.

“I woke up one day, and couldn’t see for 10 minutes. I would wake up and try to wake up my friends, but they wouldn’t wake up.”

Gwang Cheol saw many people die from malnutrition in the camps. He says, “In burials in North Korea, they just dump the body in soil as if it’s nothing.”

At the camp, Gwang Cheol also witnessed the cruelty imposed on the female prisoners, particularly those found to be impregnated by Chinese men. After the baby is born, the mother is humiliated, and then separated from her child. Even pregnant women, he says, are forced to do hard labor and malnutrition causes many to miscarry.

Since Gwang Cheol was a teenager, he was imprisoned for a period of four months. (The average sentencing term in North Korea can range from six months to three years for first-time offenders.) After he was released, he didn’t believe he would dare go back to China. But returning to life in North Korea was frustrating. It was painful for him to listen to others who hadn’t experienced what he had, and it was impossible to intervene:

“Kim Il Sung and his son, being the greatest people, are the main topics of conversation in [North] Korea, but now I know they’re the ones who made us suffer. The hardest thing is that I wanted to tell [others] the truth, but if I did, I would be killed.”

Once he finished his sentence in prison, Gwang Cheol lived in North Korea for six months before making a second attempt to escape back to China. With the help of a missionary, he escaped through the Mongolian route and came to South Korea in 2002.

One year later, in 2003, the United Nations got involved for the first time: it adopted a resolution urging North Korea to improve its human rights record. Gwang Cheol served as a witness, testifying before a committee of U.N. delegates.

“I really felt grateful,” he recalls. “They didn’t know many details about the situation, but because of my story, they voted for us.”

He continues, “That was my first time to be curious about what human rights is. I had never been educated or told about it, so I looked up ‘universal declaration of human rights’ on the Internet. There were 30 clauses. I read them all, and I was shocked—none of them were fulfilled in North Korea. That was when I realized how bad it is there. I’m living in South Korea where human rights are respected, but my friends and family are still in North Korea. What can I do? Spread the truth to South Koreans.”

When Gwang Cheol started university in 2004, he began speaking to his friends to raise awareness.

“While I was in school, I studied a lot,” he says. “But I still thought I had to spread the truth about North Korean people.” Now a 29-year-old living in Seoul, Gwang Cheol works for the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights, an NGO promoting human rights and democracy in the DPRK.

For many defectors, their assimilation into South Korean society accompanies a passionate fight to raise awareness about human rights and to bring change to the North Korean regime. Young Hee and Joseph also volunteer as activists at the Young Defectors’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, an organization that encourages defector students to become bridges between South and North Korea through their involvement in issues related to DPRK human rights and democracy.

“We want to be intellectuals in South Korea so that we can be strong and have power here,” says Young Hee, who is majoring in political science and policy. “That way, we can do something for North Korea.”

As the group’s Secretary-General, Young Hee helps to organize educational programs such as seminars for defectors to learn about North Korean history, as well as bicycle tours for South Korean and defector college students to ride to Imjingak, a town near the DMZ border. Programs like these are a small but concrete step towards facilitating discourse about the prospect of North-South reunification.

Government polls show that 56% of South Koreans believe unification is essential, compared to the more than 80% in the 1990s. In a survey conducted this year by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, 59% of South Koreans in their twenties did not believe that unification was necessary.

Perhaps surprisingly, neither does Young Hee—at least, for now.

“I don’t want a radical reunification,” she says. “When the economic status between the two countries is similar, when North Korea starts changing and accepting foreign investment—that’s when we can be unified. North Korea must change their system, so for now, we’re trying to get South Korean university students interested. If North Korean students can meet with South Korean students, that’s another form of unification.”

Joseph serves as the group’s Communications Director, spearheading outreach and promotional activities to put on street campaigns, photography exhibits, academic seminars, and student retreats.

“We created the group to speak for ourselves, to let people know the truth about North Korea,” he says. It’s often a challenging and frustrating task. When he speaks about his experiences to South Koreans, he tells them life is so difficult in North Korea that people are starving to death with no rice to eat.

“Some [South] Korean people don’t understand or believe me,” Joseph says. “They say, ‘If you don’t have any rice to eat, why don’t you eat ramen?’ I can’t even say a word afterwards. I’m just left speechless.”

Since the Young Defectors’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights is entirely volunteer-run by defector university students, members struggle with dividing their time and resources. But everyone’s conviction to liberate North Korean people has kept the group going through adversity, Joseph says.

“Some people say, ‘Why are you doing this? It doesn’t make you any money, it’s not worthwhile, and it doesn’t show any immediate reward.’ But we firmly believe in what we’re doing. Our parents and families are there. Twenty-three million people live there and suffer.”

A student at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Joseph is majoring in Media & Information, an area he sees as having great power and potential to liberate others.

“Personally I’ve come to believe that rice and bread are not the only things North Koreans need now. I absolutely believe in giving food aid to North Korea; my father and mother live there, so why would I oppose that? But you can’t give them freedom with rice and bread.”

That’s why he believes taking a harder political stance is necessary.

“The administrations of [former presidents] Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun supported North Korea a lot. I admit their actions [in taking a reconciliatory approach to North Korea] were humanitarian,” he says. “But that’s the period when the greatest number of people died in North Korea. So where did all the rice go? Not only South Korea, but also internationally, a lot of countries gave food aid to North Korea. But I learned about this only after I came to South Korea and read about it. How is it that with all of the rice the countries gave to North Korea, still the greatest number of people died? How are we supposed to understand this?”

North Koreans are dying not only from lack of food, but also primarily from lack of news, Joseph says. “They’re hungry for outside information. If you don’t have a mirror, you can never see if you are okay. North Koreans don’t have a mirror for themselves.”

Joseph goes on to describe the bags of food aid typically labeled with symbols from the U.N., the U.S.A., and South Korea.

“In the past, the government tried to hide those labels from people. But now, they don’t try to hide them anymore; they openly show the ‘U.S.A.’ signs on the rice pack. In North Korea, the biggest celebrations are the birthdays of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il—that’s when they distribute the rice to the people.”

He begins to speak quickly.

“But do you know what the government says when they distribute the rice? They say, ‘You have to thank Kim Jong Il. Look at how excellent Kim Jong Il is in diplomacy- that’s why we can get this rice from the U.S.A. and the U.N. Kim Jong Il is so great that a lot of other countries are trying to bribe him.’ And North Koreans genuinely believe that. They’re clapping, thanking Kim Jong Il, and tears are falling down their faces, they’re so grateful.”

“Why do you think that is? It’s not because of the rice. It’s because the government in North Korea blocks their ears and shuts their mouths. When babies are born, the first things they see inside their house are the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hanging on the wall. The first words you learn are, ‘Thank you, Kim Il Sung’ and ‘Thank you, Kim Jong Il,’ instead of ‘mother’ and ‘father.’ The first songs you learn are songs about Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.”

The successor of North Korea’s current leader is expected to be his son, Kim Jung Eun. “They’ve heard about Kim Jung Eun, but they don’t care about him at all,” Young Hee says, relaying news from a relative who’d recently arrived in South Korea. “They’re too concerned with trying to survive in their daily life to care about politics. Even if Kim Jong Il were to make an announcement that Kim Jung Eun is ruling the country, I’d guess that people would never question it.”

Through connections in China, Gwang Cheol is occasionally able to communicate with relatives living near the North Korean border. When he spoke with an aunt, though, she only tried to reeducate him, telling him, “You can’t live in Seoul.” Although Gwang Cheol’s friends try to contact his parents, they won’t listen to their son’s pleas to make the journey.

“Because they can’t see it for themselves,” he says, “North Koreans can’t be convinced.”

Joseph explains why.

“That’s the only world we know. We don’t even know what’s in our minds. We are so small living in our own small world; we only see the sky from where we are standing. If you are standing there a long time, you’ll never try to escape. That’s why they need us. They need us to help them to realize where they are, and to rescue them. We have to help them know the truth.”


Folding a polka-dotted umbrella as she gets on the bus, Jung Ah wears skinny jeans and a bright yellow windbreaker. During the ride through her neighborhood, she points out the Seventh-Day Adventist church she attends.

“It’s so hard to meet men there,” she says; it’s overrun by single women seeking suitable husbands. “Maybe you’ll meet someone nice on your trip,” I offer. She nods, looking unconvinced. On the phone, she said she’d be leaving for my hometown, San Diego, in less than a week. I give her a little travel bag, filled with candy, luggage tags, a sleeping mask, and travel-size containers for lotion and makeup. It looks juvenile, sitting on her lap. She smiles when I compliment her high heels, studded with sparkly rhinestones.

We get off at our stop and enter a room closed off by a heavy wooden sliding panel, settling on two floor cushions from a pile stacked near the wall.

“I never meant to escape from North Korea,” Jung Ah begins.

Jung Ah has many fond memories of living with her parents as an only child in Pyongan, a historic province in North Korea that has since been divided into North Pyongan, South Pyongan, and Pyongyang, the country’s capital. There, Jung Ah says, she lived comfortably growing up and describes her childhood as a happy one.

“I was trying to be number one in my school and be my class president. We were competitive there,” she says. “I had fun playing and studying with my friends. We tried out for the Arirang [Mass Games] festival. If you got selected, you got trained on a team, which was fun and meant you got to go to the national festival. We were not abundant and we did not know anything else. That world was it.”

As one of the country’s educated elite, Jung Ah was able to attend university. She studied North Korean literature, graduating when she was 22 years old to secure a job at the post office. She says things didn’t get too bad until after 1994, the year marking the death of Kim Il Sung.

Due to its declining economy and disastrous government policies, North Korea was already experiencing a chronic food shortage in the early 1990s, and it was devastated by massive floods and storms in 1995 and 1996. With widespread damage to crops, emergency grain reserves, and national infrastructure, the state stopped distributing rations to most people, which for many was their primary source of food.

It is estimated that as many as one million people died from starvation or diseases related to hunger during what is known now as “The Arduous March.” It is considered to be one of the worst famines of the twentieth century.

By 1997, food distribution in Pyongan had decreased by 50%. To supplement her family’s rations, Jung Ah began crossing the border into China and smuggling goods back to barter for food. On one of her trips, due to tight border surveillance by Chinese officials, she was denied entry back into North Korea. According to Jung Ah, many other North Koreans doing business in China have found themselves in similar situations.

Deaths peaked the year Jung Ah was denied reentry into North Korea, and the U.S. began shipping food aid through the U.N. World Food Programme. The fact that she lived in a relatively privileged segment of North Korean society may explain why Jung Ah does not speak of being very affected by the famine, and why she did not choose to defect.

“In Pyongan, at least in the first part of 1997, no one was starving to death,” she says. “I heard people started dying in the latter part of 1997, in 1998, 1999, and so on.

“For a while in China, I felt like I had committed treason,” Jung Ah says. She lived there for ten years, receiving some help from ethnic Korean-Chinese and moving every year to avoid being caught. To find defectors in hiding, the Chinese government conducts regular house-to-house searches in border villages such as Yanbian, home to the biggest community of ethnic Koreans in China.

When Jung Ah went to sleep, she always kept her essential belongings packed so that she could run away as soon as she heard a car approaching her house. But one evening, the Chinese authorities parked their car a good distance away and walked. This time, without the sound of a car engine to alert her, Jung Ah wasn’t quick enough to escape.

The officers arrested her and brought her to the police station, where they did a routine body search. A small bottle of rat poison dropped to the ground – something she always carried around with her so that she could kill herself if she was ever captured. Each year, she replaced the bottle to ensure its content was still potent. Upon questioning, she told them why: she couldn’t bear the thought of returning to North Korea to confess and endanger her mother and father, who would be severely punished on account of their daughter having fled. Like most defectors, she had also adopted a pseudonym and avoided having her picture taken, in order to protect her family members.

Since the last group of detainees had already been sent to North Korea, Jung Ah would have to be kept for several days.

One evening, the officers invited her to join them for dinner, knowing she would be returning to a country plagued by famine. Initially, she refused—she had no appetite knowing she was going to die.

Then she changed her mind, telling herself, “I may as well have one last meal.”

After dinner, the head officer brought Jung Ah to her prison cell located on the first floor of the facility, with a window left slightly ajar. He left her with a chain tied loosely from her leg to one post of the bed. Once he left, she lifted up one side of the bed to drag the chain out from underneath. That night, she escaped to another village. When she called the police station the next day to thank the head officer, he only warned her, “Don’t show up to our village for a while.” She discovered he was later prosecuted and imprisoned for the crime of having helped other North Korean defectors.

Having just evaded repatriation, she knew South Korea was her only hope.

“I was looking for freedom of life, and I heard the South Korean government was accepting North Koreans who escaped,” she says. She spent two years praying and figuring out the best escape route. Then, in 2006, with fake passport in hand, she headed to the airport in Dandong, the largest border city in China.

“China is the king of producing copies of the real thing, so my fake passport looked like a real one,” she says.

The problem was that Jung Ah’s passport stated her age as 41, when she was really only 31. In a rapid-fire series of questions, an airport inspector asked about her date of birth, hometown, destination, education level, and even her zodiac sign.

“The zodiac sign of the woman from the passport was the horse. I don’t know why or how I would have thought to have prepared for that question, but I can only thank God for that,” she says. She was able to slip through security and board her flight to South Korea.

Defectors who continue the journey to South Korea face an array of challenges upon their arrival. After landing in South Korea “very uptight and anxious,” Jung Ah spent her first two months at a government screening facility, where she received a health screening and was investigated by the National Intelligence Service, the Defense Security Command, and the Ministry of Unification. It is mandatory for all defectors to undergo this process, which is designed to gather any sensitive intelligence and weed out ethnic Korean-Chinese or spies posing as defectors.

The screening usually takes about two months, though it varies depending on the individual and the amount of space available at Hanawon. Hanawon is the government resettlement center where defectors undergo a three-month compulsory adjustment program. First established in 1999, it means “House of Unity” and is designed to ease defectors’ transition into South Korean society. Hanawon has expanded over the years to accommodate 750 people; a second Hanawon center is expected to be completed at the end of 2011 and hold a capacity for 500.

At Hanawon, defectors have access to health and counseling services, and learn how to use ATMs, browse the Internet, write resumes, and study subjects such as health, history, basic English, and personal finance. Jung Ah describes her time at Hanawon as “very difficult” and “stressful.” There were a lot of personality clashes between all of the people that led to a lot of fighting and alcohol abuse, she tells me.

“But when I left, I realized it made sense because everyone there had been through so much tragedy.”

Joseph remembers the attitude of one teacher he encountered at Hanawon. “The instructor indirectly suggested, ‘You could have stayed living in North Korea, and even in South Korea, we have our own difficulties and problems.’ I sensed I wasn’t welcome.” In general, he feels South Korea’s government does not welcome North Koreans.

Joseph is frank about problems with the changing nature and implementation of Hanawon’s educational programs, and the effects these changes have on the way in which defectors are integrated into South Korean society. Whenever the government changes, so does Hanawon’s policy scope and level of support. South Korea’s current conservative government, for example, tends to take a more supportive stance for defectors because of its strong opposition to North Korean policy. But in the past when the liberal progressive party ruled, the government’s desire to get along with Kim Jong Il prevented the country from actively supporting defectors who fled the North Korean government.

“So in terms of Hanawon’s education system, there’s been no consistent policy,” Joseph says. “There’s no real good system for how to lead and educate North Korean refugees to become good, adopted South Korean citizens.” To address this need, he sees potential for Hanawon to groom defectors into becoming a key resource for driving reunification efforts. “Right now, it doesn’t have that kind of system in place. All [the government] can do is provide living conditions and basic necessities,” he says.

After graduating from Hanawon, students receive a temporary monthly stipend for living costs, a subsidized apartment, and a four-year university scholarship. In the past, defectors received a lump resettlement sum of approximately $30,000 USD. The figure has decreased and fluctuated over the years; Joseph says the amount has since dropped to $6,000 USD. It is common for defectors to use the settlement money to pay brokers who helped them in their journey, or to defection specialists to guide family members from China, at prices starting at $2000 to $3,500, which rise when North Korea increases border security and surveillance. While the South Korean government claims the cut was meant to prevent exploitative broker practices, others say it was simply intended to discourage defections.

Adjusting to South Korea’s highly competitive, capitalist society poses a significant challenge for defectors.

“When North Korean people come here, their situation is 180 degrees different,” Joseph says. “The North Korean system is a planned economy. You work in a field or farm, but you don’t get the crops you raise. The government takes it and later distributes it.”

While jobs are allocated in North Korea, many defectors struggle to find employment without having the family relationships or alumni networks that many South Koreans rely upon. The Ministry of Unification, a branch of South Korea’s government that works on reunification efforts, reported in January 2011 that only 50% of defectors were employed, and more than 75% of these jobs were in unskilled manual labor—a figure that has remained largely unchanged over the past five years.

Although there are 30 regional Hana Centers scattered throughout South Korea that provide assistance with paperwork, job training, and employment to defectors after they graduate Hanawon, there is little detailed follow-up to evaluate the efficacy of most programs. Defectors need more structural support, Jung Ah asserts, when it comes to acculturating to their new country.

“I think [South Korea] should not feed us fish, but teach us to how to catch fish,” she says. “The government gives us money for six months, but instead of that, we need a job!”

Among the obstacles Jung Ah describes facing upon her arrival in South Korea, one of the most difficult was overcoming the difference between the two countries’ dialects. Following Kim Il-Sung’s Juche philosophy of self-reliance, North Korea adopted policies to purge foreign words and the use of Chinese characters, which show up in 60% to 70% of the standard Korean language.

Meanwhile, the South Korean language, Hangukmal, is peppered with a significant amount of English vocabulary – taxi, bus, shirt, banana, interview – words that aren’t just slang, but that are spelled out phonetically and printed into South Korean dictionaries. The differences in terminology have grown distinct enough that in 2004, North and South Korea began creating a joint dictionary. This project was suspended after the sinking of the Cheonan last year.

Jung Ah’s first goal was to learn Hangukmal to avoid being identified as North Korean, but it was tough with the little English she knew. When she started working as a company clerk, her first lesson came when her boss asked her to bring him his diary planner.

“I didn’t know what a ‘diary’ was, and I spent a lot of time in his office trying to figure it out,” Jung Ah recalls. “After he waited a while, he finally came in and pointed to the diary on his desk saying, ‘Is this not a diary?’ She pauses. “Even when I answered phones, I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying.”

Although the basic vocabulary and sentence structures of both languages have remained similar, they have distinct differences in tone and pronunciation. Gwang Cheol echoes Jung Ah’s struggle to learn the South Korean language and mask a North Korean accent.

“50% of it is different. The intonations are different,” he says. “Even on my way here, the taxi driver asked me where I’m from. I just lied and told him I’m from Gangwan because I can’t say I’m from North Korea.”

Although it’s been nearly ten years since he arrived in the South, Gwang Cheol admits he has still not adjusted. Transition into South Korean society can be intensely isolating, especially since defectors feel pressure to hide their identities to avoid prejudice and discrimination.

“There are glass walls that aren’t seen, but that are very present and limit our growth and prosperity,” Jung Ah says. “I know this man who had five different degrees, but because he was North Korean, he couldn’t get hired. That’s a huge problem. So in the end, for the last place he interviewed, he completely hid the fact that he was North Korean. He was hired the very next day.

“Young South Koreans say how difficult it is to get a job,” Jung Ah continues. “So if it’s hard for them, can you imagine how hard it is for us? I can’t even tell you how difficult it is.”

For this reason, after nearly seven years in the South, Jung Ah finds it is better to tell strangers that she is from China. When she first arrived in Seoul, she attended an English language center so that she would have more value in the workplace. Upon hearing her accent, her classmates guessed she was from Gyeongsang, a southern region of South Korea.

“When I told them I was from North Korea, the expression in their eyes changed. They were like, ‘So this is what a North Korean person looks like?’ I realized there would be lots of pain before becoming assimilated.”

Defectors have commonly been referred to by South Koreans as talbukja or “people who fled from the North.” Seen as derogatory, talbukja was replaced in 2005 by a new term: saeteomin, meaning “people of new land.” Jung Ah dislikes both terms because they imply North Koreans are people of a different race—contrary to Korean ethnic nationalism of “han minjok.”
She says, “Someday I’d like to be able to say naturally that I am from Pyongan. I hope that day comes soon.”

Defectors have an inferiority complex, Joseph says. “[South Koreans] treat North Korean refugees with indifference and a lack of empathy. They consider them as inferior in education and cultural background.”

While the first ripple of defectors came mainly from the North Korean elite, recent defectors tend to be younger, unskilled, and poor.

“People think that we were poor and hungry, so they look down on us,” says Jung Ah. South Koreans can view defectors as reliant on government handouts and therefore a drain on taxpayers, and some South Koreans believe they are North Korean spies merely posing as refugees. This societal stigma has led to cases in which some defectors willingly returned to the DPRK to escape their frustration and loneliness.

Shifting tensions with the North Korean regime and continued controversy about reunifying the peninsula further complicate how defectors are received in the South.

“A lot of North Korean defectors here are disappointed,” Joseph says. “We have hopes and fantasies before we come to South Korea. But the first impression we receive is a sense of coldness from South Koreans—that they have emotions against us, that they don’t want to be unified.”

Jung Ah agrees.

“It’s sad,” she says. “They say what happened to the North Koreans is unfortunate. But then they ask if reunification is really necessary. They think North Korea can improve its own economy; that they can live their lives there, and we can live our lives here.

“It’s an inevitable pain,” she says. “We’ve been separated for 60 years. Even for a family that is apart for a long time, it’s bound to be strange and strained. We are the sacrifice for the mistake made by the older generation. But I don’t know when this pain will end.”

She mentions a friend who works for Open Radio for North Korea, a radio station that broadcasts programs to listeners across the 38th parallel.

“He tries very hard towards advancing reunification, but he struggles to even make ends meet. I don’t feel the government supports him; he is alienated. On television, politicians claim to be pro-reunification, but that is just for the sake of image.”

Jung Ah also remembers watching the 2008 Olympic games from Seoul.

“I felt bitter seeing the women of the North Korean cheer team cry when Kim Jong Il’s placard got wet in the rain. But I was like that, too. We were brainwashed; Kim Jong Il was our idol. We had no way of knowing anything. We were talking mute, listening deaf in North Korea, like frogs in a well.”

A 37-year-old university student, Jung Ah now dreams of continuing her education in the U.S. to become fluent in English. Referring to her own ambition as “greedy,” she aspires to use her fluency in Mandarin and become a Korean-Chinese businesswoman or educator.

“The China market is huge,” Jung Ah says. “But you can’t be successful just knowing Korean and Chinese. You need to know English too.”

While a growing number of defectors hope to go to the U.S. in pursuit of economic and educational opportunities, international law dictates that without proving a credible fear of persecution, they are no longer eligible for refugee status elsewhere once they have resettled in South Korea.

The U.S. has the world’s largest refugee resettlement program, bringing a total of 73,293 refugees into the country in 2010. Of this number, only 25 came from North Korea. Since Jung Ah now has South Korean citizenship, she would have to go through the same visa process as any other applicant.

Because studying in the U.S. will require Jung Ah to fund her own education, she hopes to find employment leads while visiting the family of a California-based minister who assisted her in getting to South Korea.

She’d be back to Seoul in two months, she tells me, if things don’t work out.

“I don’t know if I am dreaming too big,” she says, hesitantly. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to get there, but it’s what I want to do.”


When Jung Ah asked me to help her, I wasn’t sure how. Her basic level of English would make it difficult to find many opportunities for work. Her best chance, I guessed, would be to reach out to the Korean American community.

Less than a week later, she flew to San Diego. During her time there, she gave her testimony at a California regional church conference, where she received a few donations and several unwanted photographs.

Two months later, Jung Ah returned to Seoul. Hearing her voice on the phone, I expected her to sound defeated. She didn’t. [Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]

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