Defectors tell of challenges before and after fleeing North Korea
SEOUL, South Korea — In a crowd full of one-time enemies, the former North Korean soldier quickly gained sympathy when describing his mandatory 10-year military service.
Many of the American soldiers sitting in the auditorium at Suwon Air Base groaned or cried “no way,” then leaned forward, eager to hear the rest of Ken Eom’s story.
Eom was one of four North Korean defectors who spoke to members of the 6th Battalion, 52nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment earlier this month. The event was aimed at showing the human side of the conflict — and giving the North Koreans a chance to practice their English.
The journey out of North Korea is perilous, and many escape the Stalinist state only to face new dangers such as human trafficking and poverty. Many North Koreans struggle to adjust to life in an unfamiliar world. They suffer discrimination from South Koreans who have conflicted feelings about their neighbors to the North, although activists say the situation is improving as new TV shows help raise awareness about the issue.
“From the beginning they’re kind of outsiders,” said Casey Lartigue Jr., co-founder of the nongovernmental organization Teach North Korean Refugees. “Having a network is so important in South Korea, but they’re outside of that network.”
Leaving the familiar
The number of North Koreans who have fled to the South since the end of the 1950-53 war passed the 30,000 mark in November, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said.
Officials believe people are increasingly trying to escape the isolated country as leader Kim Jong Un moves to consolidate his rule five years after taking over when his father, Kim Jong Il, died of a heart attack.
Tensions have spiked this year on the peninsula, which is divided by the world’s most fortified border, as North Korea defiantly pursues nuclear weapons and missile programs while the U.S. and its allies tighten punishing sanctions to try to force it to stop.
Eom spent most of his 20s in the military, which uses the world’s longest conscription to maintain a nearly 1.2 million-strong army. He then returned home but found his house empty because his mother and brother had escaped to South Korea without telling him.
Defectors often leave without telling their loved ones in an effort to protect them from being punished in their place.
Eom, now 36, was angry at first and believed the regime would take care of him, but his life took a turn for the worst when the ruling Workers’ Party rejected his applications to join.
“It was really hard to get a job because of my family issue,” he said in an interview. “Then one day I made a decision to escape from North Korea because there was no chance to live there.”
Eom’s path has taken him through China, Laos and Canada before ending up in South Korea.
He hopes to return to North Korea someday.
“One day Korea will be unified. When that day comes, I hope I can take you to my hometown to meet my friends, my family members — and as fellow human beings, not as opposite soldiers,” he said, getting a round of applause.
The U.S. has about 28,500 servicemembers stationed in South Korea, which remains technically in a state of war with the North since the 1950-53 conflict ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
While American troops work closely with their South Korean allies, the Teach North Korean Refugees event at Suwon Air Base was a rare opportunity to hear firsthand what it’s like to live in the North.
Most North Koreans who flee end up living illegally in China or defecting to the South, where they automatically become citizens after a mandatory three-month transition period for re-education and debriefing.
Yang So Hyen found herself in New Jersey. It was a strange fate for a woman who said she once built a snowman with her friends to represent the U.S. Army, then melted it with hot water because she had been told American soldiers were the enemy.
Her story reflects many of the problems suffered under the three-generation Kim family dynasty that has ruled the country since it was founded in 1948.
She described how she used to love watching banned foreign movies and TV shows in her home after covering the windows with blankets so nobody could see them.
But her family’s situation turned dire after her father was accused of being anti-communist and arrested during a purge by Kim Jong Il when she was 10.
“I will never forget the sight of people throwing stones at my father,” Yang told the soldiers. “When he was finally released from prison, I did not recognize my father’s face because he had been beaten so badly.”
She said her grandfather starved to death during the famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people in the 1990s.
“These are some of the reasons that I chose to escape when I was 18 years old in search of freedom,” she said.
During her first attempt, Yang was caught and deported by Chinese police, then imprisoned upon her return to the North. She and her family got out the second time, although her father died during their travels.
She applied for refugee status at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok after seeing a documentary and received U.S. citizenship in 2013.
Life in the U.S. brought a new set of problems, including financial and language difficulties. Yang also found herself unable to fit in with Americans or South Koreans living there.
“Even though we had freedom for the first time in our lives, we still had to struggle to survive in America,” she said.
Yang lied about her origins, often saying she was a Chinese-Korean to explain her accent, and spent hours studying. She now considers herself a success.
“I have finally become a human being who gets to experience freedom every day,” she said. “This is my hope for all North Koreans — to live as human beings.”
Defector numbers rise
The Unification Ministry says 1,268 North Koreans defected to the South in the first 11 months of this year, a nearly 17 percent increase from the same period in 2015. That brought the overall total through the end of November to 30,062.
That reverses a decline in defections that began when Kim Jong Un tightened border controls after taking power in 2011, the ministry said.
Officials largely attribute the trend to Kim’s moves to further consolidate his rule.
This year’s increase also is a sign that even elite members of society with the resources to overcome the country’s poverty and other limitations are seeking to escape, the ministry said.
That was highlighted over the summer when Thae Yong Ho, the North’s deputy ambassador in London, moved with his family to the South in one of the highest-profile defections to date.
North Korea called him “human scum” and accused him of being a criminal who had embezzled official funds.
Thae told South Korean lawmakers in a private meeting on Dec. 19 that he fled because of Kim’s “tyrannical reign of terror,” a lawmaker who was there told The Associated Press.
Lawmaker Lee Cheol Woo quoted Thae as denying Pyongyang’s accusations against him. Thae also said North Koreans are suffering from “slavery” under Kim’s regime, according to the AP.
North Korea also has ratcheted up pressure on overseas workers and diplomats to send more money home as the regime is squeezed by tougher economic sanctions.
A group of 13 North Koreans working at a restaurant in China defected to South Korea in April, followed by three others in June.
Learning new skills
Upon arriving in the South, defectors must undergo an investigation by the national spy service. Most have a mandatory three-month stay at a resettlement center known as Hanawon.
The main center — a red brick compound surrounded by green gates and barbed wire — is on the edge of a forested hill in Anseong, south of Seoul. The facility opened in 1999 and has a capacity for 400 defectors at a time. A second facility was opened in Hwacheon in 2012 with a capacity of 300.
Most of the occupants are women who come from the border regions, where it is easier to slip across to China, Unification Ministry officials said during a rare tour for foreign media in late November.
The residents live in dorms and receive vocational training, internet classes and English and Chinese language lessons as well as extensive health care at a clinic staffed by 20 medical workers.
Many suffer from nutrition and dental deficiencies as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep disorders and other mental issues.
Critics complain the resettlement centers are like jails because residents aren’t allowed to have cellphones or leave without supervision, although several pay phones are available for use in the courtyard.
In an interview after the speeches, defector Sera Kim said she found her time there too boring, although she was grateful for the assistance.
Kim spent only about a week in China before arriving in the South, so she still had no idea about life in the modern world. Even ATMs confounded her.
Kim came to South Korea to try to bring her mother, who had escaped earlier, home to the North. When asked why, she said “because I love my country,” then laughed when her companions reminded her she should use the past tense.
TNKR is one of several South Korean organizations trying to ease defectors’ transition.
The organization began in March 2013 with five former North Korean teachers who wanted to work in the South but found their English wasn’t good enough. It has since connected more than 250 North Koreans with more than 450 volunteer tutors and coaches, Lartigue said.
First Lt. Matthew McGowan, 26, of Collegeville, Pa., is one of them. He liked the experience so much that he suggested TNKR bring some students to the air base to address the soldiers.
“Our leaders tell us why we’re here. We work with our partners, the South Koreans, and they reinforce that,” he said in introducing the refugees. “Today we’re gonna hear a third voice … and I think it’s gonna reinforce what we hear from our leaders and the South Koreans.”
Stars and Stripes staffer Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.