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Seoul Asylum: The Brutal Existence of North Korean Defectors

You can take the defector out of North Korea, but you can't take the North Korea out of the defector. When Seoul feels heartless, the Christian church and reality television must heal the wounds that refugee status cannot.

All photos courtesy the author, who explored the world of North Korean defectors on this past week's episode of VICE on HBO.

I flew to Seoul to mingle with North Korea’s “most beautiful defectors” on the set of a hit reality TV show. With its Looney Tunes sound effects and bright lights, the Korean sensation Now on My Way to Meet You, like everything else associated with the Hermit Kingdom, feels part cartoon, part horror show. The mod set shines more like a 70s quiz program than a talk show—plus they have feats of strength and physical challenges.

The defectors, all women, sat in three rows of white tulip chairs and were interviewed about dating, love, partying, and torture. The show is supposed to give North Koreans a platform to tell their stories to their neighbors in the South, in hopes of being seen as normal by them, but the execution can be taxing to watch. When some of the show’s stars actually got to talking, their tales were horrendous: starvation, solitary confinement, hard labor, and firing squads.

Midway through the day’s taping, the show’s host shouted, “Aicha beeah oh” and waved me onto the set. After some small talk, he demanded I choose the prettiest girl in the lot. I looked at the rows of women who’d just poured their hearts out and refused. The host continued to prod me to choose my favorite North Korean defector, until he finally sent me off stage for being a buzzkill.

The stories of those escaping North Korea are somewhat like those of Holocaust survivors in that they are a combination of serendipity and brutality. No one just boards a bus across the border, slips a customs agent a wad of cash, or hides in a trunk. Defectors starve, get beaten, are sold, raped, and impregnated. And that’s once they get to China.

The North Koreans who actually make it to the promised land find themselves in South Korean public housing, towers clustered by the half dozen, living within one-bedroom cookie-cutter apartments, surrounded by fellow defectors. The towers have large numerals painted on the sides of them, visible from the highways and busy roads that they line, as if they are just part of some spreadsheet in a government registry. Every defector’s apartment is a photocopy of the one next to it, so you can get a read on where someone is in their internal life according to the state of their domestic affairs.

The first defector I visited got catapulted into the international blogosphere after being coined the Man Who Wants to Go Back to North Korea. As we set up our cameras in the living room, Son Jung-hun smoked a cigarette in his windowless bedroom. The apartment was barren—the bank had repossessed the refrigerator and dishwasher after he undersigned a defaulted loan for another defector trying to broker an escape for her relative. While the floor was littered with cigarette butts and loose papers, the walls were lined with his teenage son’s academic awards, toys, and schoolbooks. Within those bookshelves was a rare Korean copy of the new age gospel of positive psycho-bullshittery, The Secret.

We sat on the floor as he lamented the discontents of capitalism, a familiar song. He also spoke of credit and interest rates with mystery and disdain. He explained that because of his accent and short stature (due to malnourishment), employers can tell he’s North Korean and won’t hire him. South Korean women ignore him because he is broke. He said he is only living in Seoul for his son, who just made honor roll. When we went downstairs from his humble flat, Jung-hun showed us his luxury sedan, which he continued to pay for despite living beyond his means.

His mantra remains, “I want to go back to North Korea.” His words are more like the poetic refrain of Melville’s Bartleby than the makings of real political activism. While double defecting is rare, when it happens, the North Korean regime has a field day with propaganda. Who knows what happens to them after the media circus dies? Jung-hun told me that’s of no concern to him, and explained that he is dying of liver cirrhosis. Jung-hun's martyrdom, then, is all about telling South Koreans how fucked-up they are.

Nearly 70 years since there was a unified Korea, the North and South have polarized. While parts of Seoul could be set pieces in a techno-utopia, the North remains medieval. They don’t have YouTube or Nike Airs—even the evolution of kimchi and barbequed meat has been frozen in time. We all live in bubbles, but the North Korean bubble is built on equal parts material and mental isolation. One of the defectors explained that a smuggler of South Korean and Western DVDs was publicly executed in front of her elementary school. Career ambition and business savvy are foreign concerns.

While some of our Seoul contacts believe that their country is uniquely judgmental and callous, it’s hard to say whether South Korea is more close-minded than any other society with an influx of immigrants. The difficulties of North Korean assimilation—new arrivals suffer from six times the unemployment rate of the regular population—can clearly be attributed to the cultural gap in terms of education, work ethic, and financial goals. The defector’s transitions could not be more extreme.

South Korea is not just a highly competitive culture; it’s also one of the hardest-working places on earth. And when you look at the statistics on alcohol consumption and sex trade per capita (both estimated within the top five in the world), South Koreans are also among the best at blowing off steam. The men of Seoul like to do shots, sing karaoke, and fuck hookers. Their Karaoke bars, or noraebangs, don’t look that different from the places littering Midtown and the East Village in Manhattan, except in Seoul, that's where johns troll for hookers. It is within these establishments, tucked into the corners of the city, that female defectors often find their jobs.

I interviewed a prostitute named Yoon in her furniture-less flat, outside the city limits, who was paranoid about her pimp noticing our cameras or suspecting that she’d been turning tricks without consulting him. In the evening, after we left, she would descend upon these noraebangs and hourly hotels until first light.

I sat again on unforgiving hardwood, massaging the pins and needles out of my calves, while she smoked menthol after menthol. She explained how, after several failed attempts and multiple years of torture, she was finally stolen across the icy Tumen River, with skin peeling off the frozen soles of her feet, and then immediately sold to a Chinese farmer.

Farmers in southern China are among the loneliest bachelors on Earth. Yoon described how her husband and his father repeatedly raped her, even while she was pregnant with one of their children. She left her baby crying in his crib in a farmhouse when she hitched a ride with a Christian group to Vietnam (the second step in a circuitous route to seek asylum in Bangkok, followed by entry to Seoul). The Korean government hooked her up with the apartment and some job training. Soon she landed a job at a shoe factory.

“They tormented me,” day in and out, Yoon said. She heard hateful whispers and gossip from her co-workers, and soon the treatment from everyone around became unbearable. The terrible work conditions forced her to quit and led her back down the crimson alleyways of the noraebangs. When I asked her about whether she had marriage prospects or dreams of the future, she said, “Honestly, the moment we cross over the border, I think people like us have already given up on life and love. As I’m getting older, I think about being alone. How much longer could I do this? It’s really nothing more than just living. To be honest, there are no dreams left….Frankly, things are more confusing here in South Korea. People here don’t let you dream.”

North Korea is a manipulative cult. Pastor Won at the Durihana Church, who focuses his efforts on defectors, spoke about the ease with which North Koreans adapt to Christianity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost easily replace the Holy Trinity of Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un, and Kim Il-sung. The religion of capitalism, or Christianity, for that matter, is a nursery rhyme compared to the brainwashing in North Korea. Now, two generations deep into a divided Korea, those 25,000 or so who’ve slipped out of the shadow of the Kim family have what is best described as a North Korean–flavored post-traumatic stress disorder. While the South Korean government has done a great deal to assimilate their Northern kin through public housing and job training, many defectors continue to live in torture camps of their own minds.

Once you start to understand these defectors—who seem too scared to even admit where they came from, let alone tell their stories—a sleazy talk show feels like an earnest attempt to culturally elevate North Koreans into a country that will soon see little benefit in unification. And when you realize that even when handed their freedom, the next generation of North Koreans may spend decades recovering from the trauma of the Kim regime, even The Secret starts to seem like a reasonable opiate.