SEOUL—Despite a shared history on the Korean Peninsula spanning 5,000 years, for North Koreans defecting to the South, life in the free and open world comes with its own surprises.
“I can’t understand it when South Koreans say ‘blah blah,’” Park Ja Yoo (a pseudonym), a defector from North Korea, said, referring to South Koreans’ frequent use of English words.
“This country uses many foreign languages. I can’t even get a part-time job at restaurants, because I don’t know English.”
Kim Ji Won, 34, another North Korean defector who also chose to use a fictitious name, faced a similar ordeal. “I didn’t even know what a ‘supermarket’ was,” she said.
Since the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953 and ended with an armistice, the Korean Peninsula has been divided into the communist North and the democratic South. People in the North and South have been officially barred from visiting the neighboring country. However, more than a thousand North Koreans defect to the South each year in pursuit of freedom and a better life, often with the help of smugglers crossing the Chinese border.
The Free World
Life in the North was very restrictive, Kim said. When she came to the South, she saw how people her age can decide on a career path to follow and may pursue higher education.
“Pursuing my own dream was particularly difficult [in the North],” she said. “[There], one’s career is decided by the government. People must live as the government plans.”
What’s more, Kim said, employees of the North Korean government, which account for the majority of jobs, often don’t get any income from their employer, so they have to run side businesses to earn a living. Park said that with the exception of some sectors such as agriculture and mining, many North Koreans have to run some sort of business, if they have enough funds.
“People who have an idea that is not contradictory to the North’s ideology can run their own businesses,” Park said. However, they are required to pay money to the government in the form of bribery, he added.
Since the 1990s, North Koreans have resorted to using local markets, called jangmadang, to survive. According to a report by Radio Free Asia, there are almost 500 such private markets operating in North Korea, with products mainly imported from China. There are wholesale dealers and retail dealers in the North Korean markets, which provide daily necessities such as clothes, soaps, and medicines, Kim said. Yet, the market economy has not been systematized.
It was a culture shock for Kim to experience South Korea’s market economy. To earn money, she has to have a job for which she should study to be qualified, unless she runs her own business. “That was difficult,” Kim said.
Kim, who came to South Korea when she was 19, also was shocked to learn women in the South smoke and drink in public.
“In the North, smoking a cigarette was unthinkable [for women]. Only old women in their 80s smoked pipe tobacco,” she said.
Crossing the Border
North Koreans who defect to the South or other countries escape with the help of smugglers. In South Korea, there are many smugglers who bring North Koreans, said a smuggler, who asked to use an alias, Oh Jin-woo.
Oh, 55, has been working as a smuggler for years. He told The Epoch Times he’s been arrested by Chinese police a number of times for helping North Koreans defect.
The smugglers bring defectors to China by paying bribes to North Korean security guards watching the border with China, Oh said. Then, the smugglers bring the defectors to Thailand via Laos. Once in Thailand, the South Korean embassy steers the defectors to the South, Oh said. The overall success rate of defection is 80 percent to 90 percent, he said.
Kim Jong Un, the supreme leader of North Korea, commanded border guards to accept the bribes, but shoot the defectors, Oh said.
Since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, the number of defectors has rapidly decreased, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification. The decline is mainly due to increased border security.