Monday, October 26, 2009

Ask a Korean! News: To Live as a North Korean Defector in South Korea

Another brilliant piece by Joo Seong-Ha, a Kim Il-Sung University graduate who defected North Korea and now a reporter with Dong-A Ilbo:

To Live as a North Korean Defector in South Korea

In July of 2004, 468 North Korean defectors entered Korea from Thailand via a chartered plane. I am sure many recall this incident. This was when it was less than two months since I was officially hired as a staff reporter after having finished the grueling six months of internship.

The desk editor asked me as he was watching the scene on television:

"You got anything to write?"
"I'm not sure, I don't know exactly what I should write."
"Then just write the thoughts you are having as you are watching that."

So I wrote my thoughts. There was no need for a long reflection. Their stories were also mine. The path I have taken will be the path they will take. I finished writing within an hour.

I gave it to the desk editor, who said,

"This is pretty decent. I am not going to change anything, and I will forward it to the senior editor."

The senior editor published the draft as is. I have been a reporter for six years, but the only first draft of mine that was printed as-is was that "Eye of the Reporter" feature. Below is the article that I wrote.

------------------------------------------------

Some would have been captivated by the strange sceneries flowing outside of the car window, and some would have reaffirmed their resolve as they rehased the images of life in South Korea imagined in the hot safe house in Southeast Asia.

Seeing the 468 North Korean defectors who arrived over two days on the 27th and 28th board the bus on the way to the temporary holding facility, this reporter's thoughts were more complicated than anyone.

What must they be thinking as they ride that bus.

Would they know that the hopes about the future they pictured in their head would collapse one by one into a series of misery, that they would have to overcome innumerable numbers of such misery? Would they know that there is no one who did not wet their pillow with the tears of longing for home, on the night when he first unpacked his only two bags in a 400 square feet rental apartment, covered in snowy dust?

It was the same with this reporter who took his first step into the Incheon International Airport two years ago. There was a moment of decision, swimming across the Duman River swollen with flood. I have experienced six prisons throughout China and North Korea after having been arrested by the Chinese police. But the first night in Korea was truly unforgettable -- the night when, as I saw the flickering, flashy lights of the night street, the anticipation for and the fear of my new life crossed paths.

But two months later, I had to take the first step of settlement as a day laborer who carried wine boxes in and out of the container searing under the August sun. And also as a delivery man, credit card flyerer, quality controller of clothes... I also cannot forget the HR manager's look, asking me "Do you expect your North Korean skills to work here?" when I brought my Kim Il-Sung University diploma for a classified ad that required a college degree.

I had to calmly manage myself in the face of the looks of the "one people" who looked at me like a savage, and had to go to work in the morning with a smile after spending the night tossing and turning in homesickness. Regardless of what pain that afflicted the heart, what grand dream that I carried, the question of survival euphemized as "settlement" was more desperate than anything else. I believe that this beginning of life after defection is the same for everyone.

New stories would endlessly come out even if one would speak for a sleepless month. But that kind of past is meaningless. This reporter has seen anywhere between a woman in her 30s who began work three days after she left Hanawon [the temporary holding facility for North Korean defectors], and a man who has never had a job for more than a year after leaving Hanawon while dreaming of emigrating to America. The defectors who give thanks every day for the pleasure of volunteering for live-alone old people with their hard-earned money, and a defector who went to prison for stealing and selling cars. The lives of defectors who settled in Korea are completely varied.

Many people from North Korea would remember the line from the North Korean movie "The Fourteenth Winter":

"The beginnings of the lives for he and I were the same, but how are we now so far apart."

There is no one who came here without a dream. Now, the beginning is the same. I sincerely hope that my defector brethren, who crossed the line of death cradling bitter misery, would happily settle in this land through the sweat beads of honest effort.

------------------------------------------

I don't know if any of the defectors of that day saw what I wrote. It is unlikely that they did, since newspapers are not available in a defector questioning facility. It feels like it was yesterday when they arrived, but it already has been five years.

The society page of Dong-A Ilbo is currently undertaking a huge project. We tracked down the 468, contacted 233 and created a report. It took three months. As a reporter, I can say that to interview over 200 North Korean defectors who are particularly adverse to interviews is really, truly a fruit of massive effort. A North Korean defectors pictured in that article that went through such effort, their five-years of lives...

At the time, I meant what I wrote: "I sincerely hope that my defector brethren, who crossed the line of death while cradling bitter misery, would happily settle in this land through the sweat beads of honest effort." But the reality was not as I wished for, as they lived just like any other defectors.

Surveying the 200 out of 233, there were only 33 who worked at a same job for more than a year. Average monthly income per family was only $1,400. [Assuming $1 = KRW 1,000] For referece, South Korea's average monthly income per family was $3,300. It is not even half. It has been five years, but 30 percent do not have a job. Of course, many among them are voluntarily jobless.

Out of the 200, 20 live outside of Korea. This is a meaningful number. There are currently 17,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea, and it can be estimated that 10 percent or 1,700 are no longer in South Korea. I do not know how much of this fact the Korean government knows.

While they earned less than half of an average family's income, they scored their life satisfaction at 7.4 out of 10. This is pretty high. There are 38 who scored 10 out of 10. I wonder if the score would break 5 if South Koreans were surveyed. Among the 200, there were only 15 who built a net asset of over $50,000 over the five years. In other words, the vast majority could not escape poverty. But they say they are happy while living as a poor class. How miserable their North Korean lives must have been! Truly a heartbreaking reality.

I myself have been living in South Korea for only two years when I wrote the above article. So I emphasized the "sweat beads of honest effort". Now it has been seven years since I settled in South Korea. Now I question whether if I would write something like "sweat beads of honest effort" if I were asked to write the same article, although I know that there is nothing else to write if I had to write something.

But now I know that there is a limit for a fruit that can be harvested through the defectors' "sweat beads of honest effort". The defectors hide their status, and say they are Chinese-Korean when people point out their strange accents. They are at a lower status than Chinese-Koreans, and powerless to represent the pain they suffer as a minority.

When I was a defector with two years of experience, I had much to say for them. But as years pass by, I increasingly know less about what to tell them. After a few years more, I think I will really have nothing to say.

If you ever meet a defector, do not lecture them about how to live in South Korea. Settlement, in the end, is about absorbing the body blow. One's body must receive and use it, not one's mouth or hand. They must decide how to receive it and use it on their own.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@hotmail.com.

6 comments:

  1. Mr. Joo is indeed a consistently great writer. Do you have a link to the original article in Korean? This is the kind of thing my dad likes to read.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The original article is now linked in the post.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Is life necessarily hard for North Koreans? Could it have been another way? It seems unlikely that growing up in North Korea has prepared them for life in South Korea, so they're unlikely to do well. The discrimination they face makes things worse, but are they really that much worse off than South Koreans with similar skill sets?

    ReplyDelete
  4. "내가 입국 2년차 탈북자였던 그때, 저들에게 해줄 말은 참 많았다.

    그러나 해가 갈수록 나는 저들에게 어떤 말을 해줘야 할지 점점 모르겠다. 이제 몇 년이 또 지나면 나는 정말 해줄 말이 전혀 없을 것 같다.

    탈북자들을 보게 되면 남한에서 어떻게 살아야 한다고 장황하게 말하지 말라. 말로 따지면 오히려 저들이 당신에게 해줄 말이 더 많을 것이다.

    정착은 결국 몸으로 부딪치는 것이다. 입이나 손으로가 아니라 몸으로 스스로 받아들이고 쓰는 것이다. 어떻게 받아들이고 쓸지도 저들 스스로가 결정하는 것이다."

    I feel exactly the same way towards new immigrants.

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  5. I read stuff about this and it makes me sad but I am definitely not surprised. I think I am a little bit too cynical nowadays.

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  6. @Calvin

    Sorry, but it's a pet peeve of mine for people to insinuate that they are proficient in Korean by posting long strands of Korean text...even though AAK already translated it!

    So, to everyone else, here's the English (though it's unclear to me why the first paragraph is relevant in discussing new immigrants):

    When I was a defector with two years of experience, I had much to say for them. But as years pass by, I increasingly know less about what to tell them. After a few years more, I think I will really have nothing to say.

    If you ever meet a defector, do not lecture them about how to live in South Korea. Settlement, in the end, is about absorbing the body blow. One's body must receive and use it, not one's mouth or hand. They must decide how to receive it and use it on their own.

    ReplyDelete

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