New programs help defectors from North Korea adjust, shed stigma

There are nearly 30,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea. Opening up about their identities helps them overcome difficulties.

By Elizabeth Shim
Ken Eom, a 35-year-old former soldier who left North Korea in 2010, says his life in the South improved when he opened up about being a defector. “People around me became a source of help,” he said. Eom is currently raising money for tuition required to attend a university in the South. Photo courtesy of Ken Eom
1 of 3 | Ken Eom, a 35-year-old former soldier who left North Korea in 2010, says his life in the South improved when he opened up about being a defector. “People around me became a source of help,” he said. Eom is currently raising money for tuition required to attend a university in the South. Photo courtesy of Ken Eom

SEOUL, June 21 (UPI) -- When Ken Eom was a soldier in the Korean People's Army, he would be deployed to build apartments in Pyongyang. In the winter, he and his fellow soldiers would be required to attend full-scale training exercises, braving bitterly cold temperatures as they practiced military maneuvers.

"We received anti-U.S. education almost every day and were instructed to praise the father Kim Il Sung and son Kim Jong Il," Eom told UPI in a recent phone interview about a process that he compared to brainwashing.


Eom, 35, who now lives in South Korea, left the North in 2010. He arrived in the South after seeking asylum at the South Korean Embassy in Thailand.

But his problems were far from over.

North Korea is deeply impoverished and relatively isolated and North Korean defectors like Eom are materially better off in the South.


But even when food worries no longer haunt defectors in the wealthier Korea, new issues emerge.

Some of the challenges defectors face can be attributed to the unfamiliar setting of the South, and a lack of South Korean familiarity with North Koreans. South Koreans still have a tendency to look down on defectors, and the society's networks are difficult to penetrate for outsiders.

"Prejudice is most difficult to cope with. In South Korea news, there's a stereotype of North Korea associated with violence or communist totalitarianism," Eom said, describing how the media affects local perceptions of his birthplace.

Bouncing back after suffering in silence

Other problems persist because defectors new to the South lack knowledge of the basic workings of a capitalist society and struggle with English, which has been adapted to the South Korean vernacular.

These and other setbacks result in a loss of confidence among defectors who become resigned to feelings of inferiority and try to hide their identity, Eom said.

But the former North Korean soldier said he resolved common problems by stepping out of the fear zone and seeking help with everyday issues.

"When I began telling people I'm from North Korea and opening up, people around me became a source of help," Eom said.


The kind of help defectors need is growing with increased public awareness of human rights issues, and as more North Korean refugees, now approaching 30,000, resettle in the South.

Casey Lartigue, an American in Seoul who co-founded Teach North Korean Refugees, matches North Korean defectors with volunteer English teachers in Seoul.

Since 2013, Lartigue said there hasn't been a shortage of interest from defectors in his organization.

"We have a waiting list of about 65 refugees," Lartigue said.

Some North Koreans who knew Lartigue from a previous volunteering project learned about TNKR through Facebook photos. They were immediately interested, he said, and the group has had more than 230 refugees participate in the program, taking lessons from about 420 volunteer teachers.

But it's not just help with English that draws defectors struggling with their new environment. A separate program allows some participants to speak out about North Korea and overcome the stigma of their identity.

"We help refugees find their way and tell their story," Lartigue said. So far less than 20 defectors have taken to the stage to speak in public, most famously Yeonmi Park, a 22-year-old defector who became globally known after speaking at the One Young World 2014 Summit in Dublin, Ireland, and at the Oslo Freedom Forum.


Dealing with being a 'different' Korean

It's never easy, though, for North Koreans to speak out after living under an authoritarian regime.

"Some of them have never given a public speech. In North Korea they just repeat what the dictator wants them to say and in China they're not looking for an opportunity to speak out," Lartigue said.

That avoidance of the limelight continues in South Korea, where defectors don't feel motivated to attract attention.

Eom said defectors encounter uncomfortable questions about their origins.

South Koreans ask, "Are they starving in North Korea? Do they have leisure activities, like [karaoke] up there?" Eom said.

Eom said that when he was invited to a Korean family's home in Canada, where he briefly stayed to improve his English, the parent of the household introduced him to his children as a guest "from the North," but added in jest, "See, his face isn't red" and that they needn't worry because there are "no horns on his head."

It's the constant reminders of being different that can chip away at the mental well-being of defectors, but Eom said that "too little confidence is not good," and newly arrived North Koreans need to prioritize.

"Many defectors focus first on making money once they get here, and so they often go to factories to work," Eom said. "But for defectors who are still relatively young, receiving valuable education or training should come first."


Eom said his decision to go to Canada for six months to learn English helped him adjust to life in the South.

Overcoming old divisions

Eunkoo Lee, the South Korean co-founder of TNKR, said North Korean refugees are in a difficult situation because compared to the North the South offers "too many choices."

Traveling from a society that offers little to no individual freedom to a place where too much freedom is around the corner can be overwhelming for defectors, Lee said.

Lack of South Korean familiarity with defectors can also result in employment discrimination in a job market where North Koreans are often compared to ethnic Koreans from China, who comprise a larger community of 750,000, according to a South Korean press estimate from 2015.

Discrimination surfaces when a defector speaks in a North Korean accent that can sound "strange" to an unprepared South Korean employer. Refugees subsequently hide their origins or find it hard to bring up the topic of their families, Lee said.

Discouraging stories of defector struggles, however, aren't everything.

Lee said the defectors who take part in TNKR programs show commitment and take responsibility for their studies, the kind of success that "cannot be scored, but shows up in incremental results." Some of the North Korean students are sometimes matched with South Korean tutors, who have had little to no exposure to defectors.


"The best way to resolve differences is for North and South Koreans to become friends, without prejudice," Lee said. "I think defectors want to be seen, rather than as people from the North, as regular people, as friends, who live side by side with South Koreans."

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