Social workers in South Korea frequently refer to North Korean defectors as da-moonhwa, a broad label that means “many cultures.” If you look closely at the evolution of defection on the Korean peninsula, a phenomenon that becomes more relevant with every news handle about North Korean aggression or proselytizing, it becomes apparent just how culturally varied and exceptional all the resettlements have been.
The few North Koreans who defected in the harsh light of the post-Korean War years, for example, were primarily respectable adults, often with military ties. Now contrast those with the underprivileged civilians and families who began to defect from North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s—many of them spending impecunious stints in China or Southeast Asia before finally settling in South Korea. And now consider all of the children who got wrapped up in their parents’ planned defection at that time, and suddenly “many cultures” seems like an understatement. By the 1990s, it was quite apparent just how broad and sweeping the defector portrait had become in the short span of a few decades.
But if there was one commonality, it was that all the North Korean defectors were risking their lives to get to South Korea, and that any hazards were preferred to the chaos they knew in their homeland.
It’s difficult to comprehend widespread famine like the one that hit North Korea at the end of the 20th Century, spurred by years of disintegrating economic support from the Soviet Union. The food shortage ripples affected nearly every aspect of peoples’ lives. For starters, the North Korean government flat-out did not have enough food to distribute to its population. But as a result, families were forced to travel great distances in hopes of obtaining food—or money for food. And what followed was an apocalyptic picture of deprivation—fathers turned to panhandling or thievery, mothers and young girls turned to begging or prostituting, and the whole lot scouring the corners of the country for anything edible. Or in some cases, inedible things like trash or cattle manure.
The extensive famine also sent record numbers of North Korean citizens fleeing their impoverished homeland, and these are some of the first memories of Lee Na-rae*, student and defector. Long before she had hopes of making it to South Korea, long before her dream of someday working for the United Nations, she was a hungry child in North Korea.
Na-rae first learned about defecting from her home in North Korea when she was 8-years-old. Her entire family was going hungry in the midst of the famine in North Korea during the 1990s. Her father had separated from the family and distanced himself. Her mother was an acupuncturist by trade, and got the idea—along with Na-rae’s grandmother—to sneak into China to seek work and earn money for food. The plan was simple: Na-rae’s mother would slip across the North Korean border into China by crossing a river in Hamgyong. The region, located in the northernmost wing of North Korea, is extremely rugged; the trip would be hazardous, and its simplicity didn’t necessarily mean there weren’t great risks. “It was dangerous,” Na-rae says. “Many North Koreans die trying to cross that river because it is actively patrolled by army soldiers with guns.”
Still, the payoff could have been huge. Na-rae’s mother could have made a few dozen acupuncture appointments in China, and then snuck back to North Korea with enough money to sustain her family. And if there was any saving grace to the idea, it was that the North Korean government had its hands full at the time, dealing with the country’s rampant starvation. If there was ever a time to sneak into China, now was that time. “It was a very confusing period in North Korea,” Na-rae says. “It was almost like the [North Korean] government didn’t care about people going to other areas.”
And by all initial accounts, Na-rae’s mother and grandmother successfully snuck across the river into China and were presumably earning money.
But then a month passed, and they didn’t return to North Korea. Then another month, and still Na-rae had heard nothing from her mother or grandmother. And given the tightly-controlled communication system of North Korea, it wasn’t possible to make outgoing international phone calls to China or mount any type of homegrown search.
“We waited for them for six months,” Na-rae says. “But they never came back. We never even got a phone call from them.”
Na-rae recalls her family discussing the next course of action, as the food supply in North Korea continued to dwindle. Eventually Na-rae’s uncle and grandfather decided they would sneak into China to search for her mother and grandmother—a risky family reconnaissance mission, but one of the few options that offered any hope of the whole family reuniting.
So her uncle and grandfather set out on much the same route—secretly crossing the gun-patrolled river into China, leaving Na-rae in North Korea to continue waiting.
However, the outcome was not promising. “We waited and waited, and another six months passed without any call from my uncle or grandfather either. They didn’t return to North Korea,” Na-rae says. “Now the situation was a lot worse—it had been a full year of waiting. My mother, uncle, and grandmother and grandfather were now missing; they were somewhere in China.”
As a last ditch effort to find the missing family members, Na-rae’s other aunt snuck across the river into China. And, miraculously, she made contact with her long-lost family. More miraculous still was that her aunt was able to make the secret return trip to North Korea—essentially a reverse defection—and report back to then-9-year-old Na-rae and the other family members about the situation.
“My aunt told us, ‘We have to all go to China now. It’s too dangerous for any of the other family to return to North Korea, because they have been in China for so long now.’” Indeed, by this time, North Korea was emerging from the famine, which meant the government could go back to cracking down on families that had taken advantage of the disorder by planning escapes. Defecting became more dangerous than ever, according to Na-rae, but staying in North Korea looked equally foreboding.
“I was OK with the idea of leaving because I knew my mother was already waiting for me in China,” Na-rae says.
By early 1998, Na-rae and her remaining family members in North Korea were as ready as they’d ever be to leave, but there was some strategizing to do. “I was a young child, and my younger brother was 4-years-old, and my cousin was a baby at the time—only 10-months-old. We were going to [defect] with my two other aunts, but we had to find one more person to go. There had to be three adults and three children. The adults carry the children across the river. One adult carrying two children is too dangerous, too difficult. One adult carries one child.”
One of Na-rae’s aunts convinced another uncle to join the clandestine journey, but it took some persuading. “My uncle left behind his family to join us,” Na-rae remembers. “He left behind his wife and his daughter. To this day, I don’t know why he chose to leave them, but I think maybe part of him thought he would just earn money in China and then return to his family in North Korea. But you can’t do that. It’s just too dangerous.”
On the actual night they defected, Na-rae vividly remembers the darkness and the frigid air, the lack of certainty that shrouded the event. “It was April 22 when we left North Korea, but the river was still cold,” she says. “The North Korean border army along the river separated itself every 100 kilometers. My aunt had saved a little money, so she gave it to a man who lived near the river.” The bribe was for the most basic advice, Na-rae recalls. “My aunt asked the man, ‘Which area of the river is safest? What time is safest to cross it?’”
If there was any advantage in bribing the man along the river, it was that he also happened to know, by long-time association, the North Korean soldiers who were stationed nearby. If things got tense, he could potentially talk to the soldiers and bribe them as well. In fact, it’s a subtle perk for some North Koreans who live along the border rivers—secretly earning extra income, according to Na-rae’s recollection, by providing insight to wannabe defectors. “Also the soldiers near the river were low [rank],” Na-rae says. “So they didn’t have much money or food either. But if any high [-ranking] soldier found out about the man by the river taking money, the [high-ranking] soldier would probably kill the man.” She pauses. “Or ask him for money.”
Finally stepping into the thigh-deep river while cloaked in darkness was a methodical ordeal. The river itself would not have been as daunting under different circumstances, Na-rae says. She estimates that an able-bodied person in full midday clarity could have probably waded and crossed their same spot in about 20 minutes. But the blackness of the night was heavy, and the terrain on each bank was rocky.
Surprisingly Na-rae dismisses the assertion that she must have been afraid. “I don’t remember being scared then,” she says. “My family had told me for a long time, ‘You cannot talk to your friends about this.’ And, ‘What we will do will be a secret.’ So it was like I had already been trained for that situation.”
Na-rae was not, however, blind to the magnitude of what she was doing. “If someone asked me to do it again now, I’m not sure I could,” she says. “It’s so dangerous. I have a friend here in South Korea who also came from North Korea—and he was shot in the leg by the army while crossing the river. But we had to do it. We knew cases of success—like my mother and aunt and grandparents, who would be waiting for us in China.”
But going methodically took time, and the longer everyone was wading in the open water, the greater the risk of being detected by the soldiers. “We all had to be quiet and go slowly. We didn’t know the exact route, so it took a long time to cross the river—more than three hours. Once we successfully got to China, we could see the sun starting to rise, so we knew we had to hurry.”
Even once out of the river and on solid Chinese ground, Na-rae and her family weren’t safe. Chinese guards patrol the river on China’s side and keep an eye out for defectors as well.
Wet, dirty, tired, freezing to the bone, and with nerves heightened, Na-rae and her relatives eventually saw houses in the distance. They didn’t know if the houses would be safe or not. There was no way to know. “My aunt knew three or four Chinese words, so she just chose a house and said, ‘Help me.’”
Whoever lived in the random house along the river in China was the last wild card of the night’s journey. It could have easily been a straight-laced Chinese citizen who would report the defectors to the proper authorities, or worse, he could have been in cahoots—possibly financially—with the Chinese police or patrolling guards and have no sympathy for a haggard bunch of North Koreans. Or he could have been armed himself. There was no way of knowing; it was a life-or-death gamble that came down to a knock on a door and the desperate plea from Na-rae’s aunt.
“I remember the Chinese man taking us inside his house,” Na-rae says. “His wife had abandoned him a year earlier, but a lot of her clothes were still in the house. So he gave us some of her clothes. He gave us food. He let us use his shower. He let us use his phone—we could finally call my mother. And he said if we ever came through his way again, to please introduce him to a nice North Korean woman.” Na-rae smiles at that memory.
There was more good fortune. The Chinese man owned a 3-wheeler taxi service, and drove Na-rae and her aunts to meet her mother and extended family: 10 people in total—finally reunited. “I was happy because I hadn’t seen them for a full year. And I felt safe. But I didn’t cry. I had been trained for that situation,” she says.
Part of why some people criticize organizations that help North Korean youth defectors has to do with handouts. Free education and college tuition, family housing, loans, living stipends (“resettlement funds”), and other awards are often given to defectors upon their arrival to South Korea. There were less than 50 North Korean defectors annually coming to South Korea in the early-1990s; but compare that to the nearly 3,000 documented defectors two years ago, and you begin to realize the sheer volume of necessary gratuity from the South Korean government. Such perks—special treatment in every sense of the word—irks and bewilders critics who deem such subsidies from the government as contrary to the basic objective: To get these defectors blending in and living normal lives like everybody else.
Their lives can’t be normal, however, at least not right away, and that’s the counter-argument to all the criticism. A North Korean who has fled to South Korea often enrolls at a multi-month “social adjustment” facility known as a hanawon. Once a stint there is completed, there’s the very real threat of being discovered by North Korean spies or sympathizers. Drastic measures to maintain secrecy or anonymity, like forging documents and changing one’s name, are sometimes done by the North Korean defectors to slide under the radar. But on a more communal scale, they often handle this in a more understated way: living extremely low-key lives and hanging out with only a close-knit group of other defectors in South Korea, a ragtag clutch that makes it difficult for an ambitious, wide-eyed kid like Na-rae to have the rambunctious, free-spirited childhood that most kids have.
“In China,” Na-rae recalls, “my family was always stressed because we didn’t speak Chinese, and we were still near the river. So my grandmother urged all of us to study Chinese because she knew that people would know we weren’t’ from China if we couldn’t speak the language.”
So began Na-rae’s arduous, self-driven process of becoming a language and cultural sponge. China was like a revelation to her—it was the first time she had seen so many lights at night, or reliable electronics—refrigerators or electric sewing machines in particular. It was also the first time she had seen so many people “wearing good clothes, eating good food, and speaking other languages.” But it was a rigorous, challenging clump of years living there—years of struggling to make ends meet and staying constantly on the move to dodge the authorities. “We lived in 40 different places in 4 years,” she says.
Eventually Na-rae and her family landed in a home near the Mongolian border. From there, they were able to take a train into Mongolia and gain refuge at the Korean embassy, and ultimately catch a flight into South Korea.
The journey was complete, at least in a geographical sense. But it was still an uphill battle. In her first year of middle school assessment exams in South Korea, Na-rae scored an abysmal 42 out of 100 because so many subjects (music, history, math) were too advanced for her. She also faced the taunts of other students: “At first, many students wouldn’t come close to me, and they’d point and say, ‘Ah, North Korea, North Korea!’”
It was only after extensive after-school tutoring that Na-rae’s scores improved, thanks greatly to organizations that aid North Koreans. She also slowly developed a network of friends, particularly other students who were ostracized. For many young North Korean defectors large gaps remain once the defection is complete. Studying academics is one thing, but many know nothing concrete about things like contraception—or really about sex, for that matter. “You don’t need to know it in North Korea,” Na-rae says. “People don’t kiss [in public], people don’t hug, don’t hold hands.” And there is uniquely 21st century knowledge like how to use the Internet or a smartphone that is often absent as well.
That’s where Na-rae found a calling. A teacher was searching for young North Korean refugees willing to travel around Seoul and lecture to other North Korean students who were struggling. The teacher asked Na-rae if she’d be interested in joining the tour.
“The North Koreans kids who have defected need real experiences—how to take the bus, how to use the ATM or bank,” Na-rae says. “They need other North Koreans to help them. They need North Koreans who understand them.”
Around the same time, in 2007, the Rainbow Youth Center, a foundation that provides integration support for North Korean youth refugees, was just getting off the ground and starting to publish pamphlets for defectors—FAQs about adjusting to South Korean culture, essentially. The Rainbow Youth Center caught wind of Na-rae and her little lecture circuit and asked if she’d help write their pamphlets. The idea blossomed, and eventually the Rainbow Youth Center was printing thicker pamphlets (“How to Use a Cell Phone,” “How to Find a Job,” “Parenting”), and then full-fledged books, all to teach the North Korean defectors about anything and everything from the reproduction to shopping and geography. It’s a practice that continues to this day, and every few months the Rainbow Youth Center holds discussion forums for defectors and anyone else who wants to get involved. The books are more than self-help guides—more along the lines of aids in the youths’ donning of entirely new functional identities, and they have been wildly popular.
And at the core of the books was what Na-rae is most enthralled by, easing other North Korean defectors into a more global worldview. “The North Korean experience, the China experience—it was all very good for me,” she says. “If I had a choice to change my life, I wouldn’t change it. The experiences helped me a lot, made me think about differences with other people, and think about how the world is very big, and that I need to study many things. And in my case, I enjoy that.”
Some defectors never seek out the Rainbow Youth Center, browse its books or grow entirely comfortable with the transition into 21st Century ultra-urban life. But that’s just more impetus for the center to persevere.
The Rainbow Youth Center is always looking for ways to broaden its outreach. Currently it operates with four main divisions—initial entry support, integration support through counseling and other services, advocacy, and research. Last year, Na-rae was the inaugural recipient of a scholarship that allowed her to attend a university in Seoul, and she has also had opportunities to visit the United States and Israel. In the previous year alone, the Rainbow Youth Center took more than 100 North Korean defectors under its wing. An extracurricular sports program is in the works, as well as a summer camp for North Korean defectors, and possibly more books to publish.
The teenagers who visit the Rainbow Youth Center now all share some of Na-rae’s challenges—language barriers and taunts at school since arriving in South Korea—despite the fact that they aren’t all North Korean defectors. Some are the ethnic-Chinese who have immigrated to Seoul. But the center caters to their needs not because they all share parallel backgrounds, but because they all could use their circumstances to industriously impact their futures. A good example of the breadth of possible self-improvement: While obtaining asylum at Mongolia’s Korean embassy, Na-rae was driven to safety by government authorities in a van. But she suddenly began to feel woozy and nauseous. It was carsickness—in fact, it was the first time she had ridden in a motorized vehicle. Her travels in North Korea had been either by foot or oxcart.
Now, years later and thanks to protection, tutoring, and scholarship, she is literally traveling the world.
*Not her real name.
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Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.