Voices of North Korea: Teenager surprised at South's competitiveness, materialism

Editor’s Note: David A. Caprara, a journalist working with the Global Peace Foundation in Seoul, South Korea, recently conducted a series of interviews with North Korean defectors. The interviews were conducted in Korean, interpreted by Yeon Jung Kwak. Their names are withheld to protect them from retaliation.The transcripts are lightly edited for length and clarity. This is the third of five in the series.
By David A. Caprara  |  Jan. 21, 2015 at 7:30 AM
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This 19-year-old high school student fled North Korea with her mother and sister in 2008; she has not seen her father in years and doesn't know how he is. She wept at times during the interview, but she also had a strong laugh.

Q: Could you share a bit about your life before you left for South Korea? How and why did you leave?

My best memories are mostly of simple things like hanging out with friends.

My grandma came before the rest of us. She was living south of Seoul and wired us money through Chinese brokers. The government cannot track where the money is coming from when it is transferred, but they were suspicious, so our family was heavily watched. My mother wanted to flee anyway, though. My father had fallen ill, and we thought we would take him to South Korea to get better treatment.

My mom, my sister and I made our escape first. We crossed the Tumen River, walked through China and got on a bus that took us south. Something went wrong in my father's escape, however. He took a different route and was captured in Mongolia.

For North Koreans, if we are captured in China the punishment is not as severe as it is if one is discovered in Mongolia. If a North Korean is seen in China, it is possible that they are just trying to find a job. If one makes it as far as Mongolia, however, it is quite obvious that they are trying to escape. I have not heard from my father since we left, and I do not know how he is doing.

Q: What were your first impressions of South Korea?

We began living in an unfurnished seventh-floor apartment on the outskirts of Seoul. It was very vacant there, and there weren't any people outside of the building either. I asked myself: 'Am I really living where other human beings live?' I felt scared. I missed the friends from my old life.

Q: How bad was the poverty in your country?

The only thing the news and TV programs in Seoul ever talk about regarding North Korea is poverty and suffering. But the reality is that, despite our hardships, the children are having a good time hanging out and being friends. It shows that we value human relationships above material commodities.

I don't want people to think life in North Korea is 100 percent negative because it isn't. All people ever ask me is how bad the poverty was; they don't care or want to even believe that there could be good sides of life there. If we leave the North and come to Seoul, we eventually get trained to start thinking of ourselves as disabled victims. People always talk about North Korean brainwashing, but this is a sort of brainwashing, too, when it starts to change the way you think about yourself.

After coming here, I read the autobiography of Helen Keller. Her story gave me a sense of encouragement for my own life and allowed me to stop seeing myself as having a disability like everyone around me wanted me to believe.

Q: Do your friends know that you are from North Korea?

Only my closest friends. I had a classmate once who bullied me frequently. He would always ask me, 'Are you hungry?' He irritated me so much, and his words hurt me inside, but I would never respond to him. I would just look him in the eyes and remain silent.

Q: Do you think unification will ever happen?

North and South Korea have developed very different ideas of what happiness is. In the South, happiness is to have money and to be handsome or pretty. North Korea is different. We grew up in a different background. That is why North Korea avoids communication with other countries.

One difference that surprised me when I came here was how competitive everyone is. I could not understand it. But after time, I began to understand why students cry when they get wrong answers on tests.

South Korea believes that after reunification we need to build more buildings and bridges and build a capitalistic system to basically photocopy South Korea onto North Korea. But this isn't unification, it's the South taking over. No one thinks to ask whether or not people in North Korea actually want these things.

The world needs to change its view that South Korea needs to "bring the North up." We should be bringing each other up. Unification has to be seen as a win-win on both sides, not just beneficial for North Korea alone.

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Topics: Helen Keller
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