North Korean defectors don’t have an easy time when they try to get away from North Korea, both on a physical and mental level.
But North Korean defectors are speaking up, describing the huge adjustments they have to make to fit in with a normal functioning modern society. The roads that North and South Korea have taken after seven decades of separation make them look like two separate world’s that are set right next to each other.
Many North Koreans try to escape through China, but are often sent back to North Korea where they face harsh consequences. People can be shot for just trying to escape North Korea, like in the back on the way out. Getting sent back after escaping is no less perilous. One man’s family who were staying in China, had to leave when China started deporting North Korean refugees before the 2008 Olympics, according to an Asian Boss interview.
“When the authorities started searching houses, my mom and I were cornered like rats. We could feel them getting closer and we were running out of places to hide,” said an unnamed defector via Asian Boss. “If we were going to die either way, we thought we might as well die searching for freedom.”
Another defector has met with success after leaving the North, but has also had to deal with difficulties as he navigated South Korea’s educational system. He described some of the vast differences he experienced.
“My classmates in South Korea didn’t want to include me in teamwork projects because they thought I really lacked understanding of technology, how to write, and the knowledge of classics and history,” Kim Seong Ryeol told NBC News. “North Korea’s education is not modernized and many things are based on propaganda to make sure people worship the Kim family.”
The Kim family refers to three generations of communist dictators who have ruled North Korea ever since Korea was split into two territories after World War II. In the North, the Soviet Union aided in bringing a communist dictatorship to power. The South became democratic. Communism has kept the country backward, and North Koreans are educated with lies about South Korean poverty from a young age.
“It really confused everything to find out that South Korea is actually a highly developed society,” said Kim Seong Ryeol.
A 37-year-old cartoonist from North Korea, now draws cartoons that laugh at the challenges North Koreans face when defecting to South Korea, as he did. His comics shed light on the difficulties that defectors face due to cultural differences despite being from the same culture. He was surprised that even just the nature of his profession took on a vastly different tone.
“When I first saw South Korean cartoons, I just didn’t get them,” said Choi Seong-guk to PRI. “There were no stories about patriotism or catching spies or war. They just seemed useless to me.”
His views point to the constant political indoctrination that North Koreans face and how it pervades all professions and areas of society. The propaganda cartoons he was praised for drawing in North Korea started to no longer make sense to him. Now his cartoons depict North Koreans eating grass to survive or defectors risking their lives to escape North Korea by water.
These North Korean defectors describe how in professional or academic settings things are difficult for them in South Korea, but by escaping they can experience the truth instead of having to ingest the official stance of the communist regime that they are no better off if they leave.
Not just South Korea, but of course the United States is the other major target of societal brainwashing in North Korea. Choi Seong-guk portrayed American soldiers “as ugly and as violent as possible” in his propaganda cartoons. North Koreans are taught to blame America for the poverty and other problems they face, while the regime hides the fact that their former countrymen in South Korea are modern and thriving.
“When I was little, every book, every curriculum, they always mentioned that America is the enemy,” said Kim Seong Ryeol. “When I was little I dreamed about fighting Americans.”
“It broadened my perspective, when I met my American friends, and made me think differently, to see that the world is global,” he said.