An Escape from Politics: 'What We Seek is Just an Ordinary Life'

An Escape from Politics: 'What We Seek is Just an Ordinary Life'
Photo Credit: Reuters / 達志影像
What you need to know

The North Korean refugee narrative badly needs redefinition.

Beyond the Kim’s family dynamics and their love of nuclear weaponry, discussed to death in the mainstream media, what do we really know about North Korea, or about the lives of North Korean defectors in China and South Korea? This summer, I was invited by Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) for a rare opportunity to meet and talk with North Korean defectors who have found their way to South Korea. Although they were struggling against uncompromising local attitudes and the difficulties of an unyielding socioeconomic ladder, these refugees were hopeful: they told me that in South Korea, they finally had a chance to have “dreams.”

During our trip to Bukchon Hanok Traditional Village, Min Sung, a resettled North Korean and interned at LiNK’s Seoul office, used fluent English to guide us through this reminder of Korean history. Min, who participated in LiNK’s Study Abroad & Career Development Program in 2013, took intensive language classes in San Francisco to improve his language skills. He is now majoring in Engineering at a university in Seoul, and he told me he was also self-studying computer science. I asked him why he chose Engineering and CS, and his answer was unsurprising but reasonable: it’s easy to get a job. He told me he had a “dream”: “to own a big company and make a lot of money.” The money means something different for him than for many of us: if he has enough, he might help all of his family members escape.

Before the series of meetings, LiNK’s staff members reminded me that taking photographs was strictly forbidden. The reason is simple: most of the defectors I met still have relatives in North Korea, and hence must live low-key lives under new names. If they are ever identified by the North Korean State Security Department (SSD), their relatives may face political imprisonment and even execution. Min misses his family and hinges his hopes on a future reunion. However, without money, he can make nothing happen.

It is estimated that monetary transfers to the North from defectors in the South amount to approximately US$10-15 million per year. Although this is not a huge total, the money helps many families in the North to survive. More importantly, it can be kept for bribes, which saves their lives in emergencies, especially if they are caught using money sent from their South Korean counterparts. There is heavy irony in how money talks so loud in this so-called socialist country. Money means food, rights, and even life.

Ordinarily I am contemptuous of materialism. From my position in a first-world economy, with food, shelter, and education within easy reach, the word "dream" seems ludicrous conflated with a numerical total. But when I heard Min’s account, I realized that money means something different in a brutal environment of hunger, fear, and limited opportunities. South Korea is no heaven for defectors, but at least it allows Min to hope: money that he earns here means his family’s survival, and someday, a reunion. Dreams like these help refugees to struggle through difficult periods of adaptation to cultural and linguistic differences, not to mention technological.

In a café in Myeongdong, I talked to Yoo Yoon, who recently resettled and is now attending nursing school. Her dream is about making money to help her family in North Korea. This is more difficult than it sounds: Yoon worries that employers will always prefer South Korean natives. Other defectors also confirm the existence of discrimination. Not enough is being done to raise awareness of this problem: currently, many South Korean citizens are indifferent to defector issues, with a smaller group being openly critical. When more and more refugees arrive, it is likely that South Korean society will become less and less welcoming. Much like the refugee crisis in Europe, refugees in Korea have fled from being victimized by political issues. However, total escape is difficult, if not impossible. Refugees will soon find that when they arrive to a new place, new political games are waiting for them.

I met Yoon Ha and her one-year-old child in their apartment. Yoon didn’t know she was pregnant until she ran away from her abusive second husband. Before that, she had a child by her first husband and was “sold” to her second husband by her first. There are around 200,000 defectors living secretly in China. The Chinese government considers them illegal immigrants. Their illegal status forces them to work in invisible industries and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by sex traffickers and unscrupulous employers. Many Chinese remain skeptical about the possibility of China taking more responsibility for refugees. They say, “It doesn’t suit the Chinese government’s international politics.” Although most ordinary Chinese people are not unaware of political issues affecting their lives, few people will mention politics in public. For these Chinese citizens, refugee issues are inevitably seen through a political lens and not a humanitarian one.

Beijing is still angry at the South Korean government, who permitted the THAAD system deployment. This negativity makes me more concerned for the lives of North Korean defectors in China. It seems that the lives and fates of these people are not owned by themselves, but by political organizations. Their human rights are used as bargaining counters in political deals.

I wonder if we could consider human rights issues without first inhaling the pungent odor of politics. Although North Korean refugees are driving significant, bottom-up economic changes that may someday lead North Korea to a different future, I see this ambition as secondary. A simpler dream will suffice: help them escape from politics and empower them to seek a life they want. The refugee narrative badly needs redefinition.

Meeting the North Korean refugees makes me wonder: am I not also a victim of my country’s politics? Is it possible for me to view human rights purely, regardless of my government’s influence? I am not sure about the answer. But I do know that I, also, am trying my hardest to escape.


First Editor: J. Michael Cole
Second Editor: Olivia Yang