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Korean Thunderdome, Part 1: The Defector Dilemma

The first in a 4-part series on the Korean peninsula: North Korean defectors in the South struggle to be Korean in a whole new way.

by Ryan Faith
Apr 17 2014, 5:20pm

Photo by Ryan Faith

It's natural to assume that North Korean defectors who've escaped their country feel like they're livin' on Easy Street. After all, no matter what their lives are like, they have to be better than the abject misery and terrible brutality they left behind.

But the reality is different. When people from the North escape to the South, they're given South Korea’s standard refugee package. The programs in place for integration — including the grant of a paid-for apartment — seem like they would offer a pretty good start. Especially compared to other refugees, who don’t have the whole Korean language thing all figured out. On paper, North Koreans in the South have it a lot better than most legal or illegal immigrants — or college grads — appear to have it in many other parts of the world.

Thing is, defecting is more than just a matter of waking up in a Korea with a different first name. It's incredibly disorienting for defectors, like waking up in a Korea from another dimension — a Twilight Zone episode of a Korea. According to Myeong Chul Ahn, a North Korean living in Seoul who defected more than 20 years ago, the difference between South Korea and its evil twin even shows through in the expressions of people from the two countries. “If you look at the faces of South Koreans, they look great and they are more natural in expressing their emotions," Ahn told VICE News via a translator. "If you go to North Korea and see their faces, they're very rigid and strict.”

And a quick trip to a spa doesn't ease that rigidity. “If a North Korean has lived here for less than five years, however he decorates himself and however else he tries to be South Korean, I can tell that he’s from North Korea. He has an unnatural feeling and emotion on his face.”

'I'd Been Brainwashed': The North Korean Defector Living In London. Read more here.

A defector arriving in Seoul faces the same problems any ex-pat would — learning how to get around, making new friends, finding a reliable dry-cleaner. But a North Korean will have never experienced either a free market or a major city. Seoul is the world’s second-largest metropolitan area; it has as many people — 25.6 million — as all of North Korea. And Fodor's doesn't write guidebooks telling Koreans how to live in Korea.

It used to be even harder for defectors. Today, more than 27,000 are living in South Korea. But when Ahn came south in the mid-1990s, defectors were extremely rare. Ahn told VICE News that when he first arrived, people would look at any defector “like a monkey in a zoo.” For Ahn, the real kicker in the struggle to figure out how to actually live and carry on day-to-day in this bizarre alternate Korea was the people asking him “Why did you abandon your family?” Although Ahn didn’t say whether he was actually called a heartless bastard, it seemed to be implied when people kept on hammering him on it.

Defectors are now telling folks back home that life in the South isn’t all Skittles and beer, which discourages further defections.

In a bid to cut down on feelings of isolation and loneliness, South Korea now settles defectors in close proximity to each other. This is great for defectors who want to find other equally baffled defectors with whom to commiserate, but it isolates them from the South Koreans from whom they need to learn the ins-and-outs of daily life.

North Koreans also face problems when it comes to getting a job; the unemployment rate for transplants is several times higher than it is for South Koreans. North Koreans, who stand out because of their accent, have a reputation for being unreliable, and have difficulty finding work. “Let's say a company is [hiring] for a job and they have three applicants, one South Korean, one Chinese, and one from North Korea," Ahn begins. "South Koreans are very expensive to use, so the company would drop them. [Choosing] from Chinese and North Koreans, they'll think of North Koreans as unreliable, so they will choose the Chinese.”

In the end, a lot of North Koreans simply end up sitting around with other North Koreans, drinking and getting up to the kinds of things that people with no hope, a lot of time, and alcohol get up to. The transition to South Korea is so difficult, in fact, that many defectors end up moving to Canada and the US, believing it will be easier to start over there — language barrier and all — than to manage the entire business of being Korean in an entirely different way.

This is becoming something of a problem for the South Korean government. Many defectors remain in touch — of a sort — with their families via illicit communication through China. Defectors are now telling folks back home that life in the South isn’t all Skittles and beer, which discourages further defections. Ahn attributes a portion of the drop in defections in recent years to the negative experiences of defectors in the South.

But where this goes from unfortunate to alarming is how unprepared South Korea is for a massive influx of refugees from the North. While few in South Korea talk much (or really at all) about a possible conflict with North Korea, discussion of peaceful reunification is a common topic for politicians in Seoul. But if that happy day should ever come, it could be a mind-bogglingly huge mess for the South. As Ahn put it, South Korea is “very not ready," a grammatically dubious but quite effective way to emphasize the amount of not ready that South Korea is bringing to bear. As Ahn said, “Even though it’s quite late already, [the South Korean government] should start preparing for unification. If the government wants to do that.”

Perhaps I'm reading too much into the tail end of a translated sentence, but those last couple words are shocking. At top political levels, South Korea officially treats unification as an undeniable, immutable fixture of Korean identity. But Ahn's statement seems to imply that if South Korea doesn’t start preparing for a massive influx of North Koreans, maybe they’re not really serious about reunification after all.

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