North Korea will always have a problem when it comes to the world’s perspective. With the two halves of the Korean peninsula long embroiled in a bitter propaganda war in which neither side can be trusted to any real degree, South Korea comes out on top simply by virtue of having the louder, more internationally recognized voice. Most unbiased historians would probably come to the conclusion that there’s more truth to the South’s (relatively down to earth) claims, too, but very few people have the kind of genuine perspective – or even the access to it – that allows an honest appraisal of the true nature of the situation.
The Korean border is a blockade. Over fifty years ago, a line in the sand – now a heavily fenced sea-to-sea stand off – was drawn, instantaneously splitting families in half and tearing a once powerfully united country into two. At the time, North Korea was the marginally richer half of the country, a trend that continued for several years, with the democratic South’s poverty at the time comparable to some of the poorest countries in Africa. Now South Korea’s capital Seoul is not all that different to Tokyo, a glittering neon jungle that’s home to some of the world’s foremost technological companies and littered with big name chain stores. Just 50 miles North, over the 38th parallel, aid agencies estimate several million people recently starved. With the two countries seemingly ever closer to coming to blows over the past few years, only a few thousand people have ever escaped from the North, and opted – by choice – to settle in the South. Still fewer are prepared to risk their newfound status in order to tell us about it. On the condition of anonymity, however, we did find one…
Lee (name changed at the request of the interviewee) lived in North Korea until the age of nine, and – after escaping the country with her mother via China – now studies in South Korea, attending a major university. She’s one of around 20,000 North Korean refugees currently claiming residence in the South, as well as being one of a impressively small number of people who can claim genuine life experience both sides of the border, especially once the very elderly ‘North Koreans’ (who, obviously, never lived under the current North Korean regime) have been eliminated. Lee lives a life of not insubstantial prejudice, with the tag ‘North Korean’ forever following her around the South, and has since returned to her homeland – by way of bribery at the northern border with China – a number of times. For this act of governmental insubordination, she could be shot on arrival, though the tendency of the local force is to overlook this is far as possible. When Lee sporadically arrives home, she brings with her news of a world that’s often utterly incomprehensible to those she left behind.
Lee grew up as the daughter of a doctor, getting along fairly well north of the border until ‘96/ ’97, when she reports ‘I knew we were going through a rough time. I saw classmates gradually stop coming to school. I heard that some left the country, and others couldn’t come to school because they were starving. The teachers stopped coming, too, and so the school faded away’. Lee’s referring, of course, to the mid 90s famine which – with Kim Jong Il focusing all his funds on nuclear development – left many ordinary people starving. ‘They stopped giving us food rations, and people were not used to the hunger and did not have the means to survive. People were literally passing out in the streets, but I was young, and I just thought that was life’.
Lee saw North Korea’s social disparity – presumably with the exception of the leadership – as being far less than that found in the South. ‘When I was young, economic disparity in North Korea was basically those families that had the next meal and those that didn’t. Now it is between those select few who get to go abroad and have foreign currency, and those who don’t have anything’. Life in North Korea was notoriously sheltered, of course. Lee remarks that her history books were ‘so distorted they sounded like legends, like prophecies from the bible. People don’t believe them anymore, but they used to. The books are still written that way, though.’
North Korean defectors face a number of issues living in the South. Lee arrived via a period in China, and experienced South Koreans animosity towards her immediately on arriving at the airport. Asked why she has come to the South, Lee’s mother told officials ‘we want to have a good life’, to which the immigration staff sarcastically replied ‘good luck’, and Lee’s been wary ever since. ‘South Koreans assume people from poorer countries are not well educated’, she argues. ‘Some South Koreans assume we’re naïve and good-natured. The older generation don’t like us because of communism, while the younger people did not grow up with a specific ideology, but see us as foreigners from a poor country, who don’t have much’.
Perhaps the biggest issue Lee has to face on an everyday basis is what she describes as South Korean ‘indifference’, though she does lay the blame at the door of North Korean refugees to some extent, too. ‘There are only a limited number of people who take the time to spread the word about North Korea. If all the defectors worked together to activity endorse/ promote, wouldn’t that draw attention?’ Another, slightly surprising issue for Lee has been language. ‘Korean spoken in South Korea is non-pure Korean, with Konglish (Korean incorporation of English) and what not. For six months I toiled’.
South Korea, of course, runs at a manic pace of life compared to the North, and even Lee’s buffer time in China hadn’t prepared her entirely for what was to come. ‘If you miss a day on the Internet in South Korea you feel like you’re behind on trends. South Korean students talk about sitcoms all the time, and I find them rather silly. I didn’t use to worry about getting a job, but now I feel really pressured and so I cave in and start looking for one. Also, watching the news is hard for me. Everything is bad news. Subconsciously it stresses me out’.
Lee risks being shot as a traitor every time she tries to return to North Korea, but despite the issues, she does get news through her North Korean contacts regularly, on top of her own trips. Things are very different from the days of famine now: ‘these days, many North Koreans talk secretly to people in China to learn Chinese. They also learn to type in school, on a limited number of computers with no Internet access’.
Perhaps due in part to her reception in the South, Lee recently wrote a poignant essay summarizing her role in South Korea as that of ‘an exchange student’. ‘It is based on the belief that I will return to North Korea to live in the future’, Lee argues. ‘It is obvious that I love North Korea more than I love South Korea. That is why I continue to educate myself on North Korea and collect information on North Korea here. I hope to play a role in North Korea’s economic and social reform’.
North Korea’s economic and social reform… isn’t it a bit early for that? ‘Frankly speaking, the North Korean regime can’t survive in the modern world. Countries are opening their doors, but North Korea’s doors remain closed. Also, Kim Jong Il is not going to live forever, so a change is going to come. People think of reunification as the two governments coming together, but for me reunification is when Koreans from both sides of the peninsula can travel to and fro without constraints. I think it’s possible. People want political assimilation. The political aspects of reunification will be an arduous task, but I don’t think that’s impossible either.’
‘People talk about a lot about how South Korea’s GDP will drop by 50%. However the money that South Korea spends on its military — most of which is for protection against North Korea — can be invested into her economy. This is not a task that can be accomplished in a decade or two but in the long run, it is definitely possible. I believe it will be an opportunity to revive traditional Korean culture, the language, for one. There are differences that will be a challenge. Confucianism is so deeply rooted in South Korean society as opposed to China or North Korea that are influenced by socialism. Women and men play the same role in the workforce in North Korea. In that sense, North Koreans are more forward.’
Lee has views on Communism that – should she choose to be more vocal about them – would go down extremely badly (perhaps even leading to arrest) in the South. Asked to describe what communism means to her, Lee replies ‘Utopia. I’m not a philosopher, but from what we know of human nature, communism cannot be achieved. Perhaps, as Marx said, if socialism came after capitalism and all the countries were wealthy, then maybe…’
The key factor in change when Kim Jong Il passes away, of course, may revolve around how much North Koreans actually want it. Lee’s response is unequivocal: ‘ North Koreans definition of change may not be quite the same as in the South, but North Koreans do know that a change ought to come. They do want it.’ People like Lee, isolated from their homeland, will no doubt be pivotal when that day arrives.
As published in AU Magazine, May 2010