North Korean Defectors: Finding a New Start in the ROK

North Korean Defectors: Finding a New Start in the ROK

(Illustration by Rob Green)

The airwaves in South Korea are now full of North Korean defectors telling their stories of escape from their country and their lives in South Korea. On their arrival to South Korea, defectors are more or less given a new start: a three month “life skills” course aimed at providing them with the skills necessary to survive life in capitalist South Korea. Often defectors already come to South Korea with some familiarity of life outside the North: many spend months, even years, in China, before finding their way into South Korea after trial-filled journeys through Southeast Asia.

However, most defectors come to the South with limited education – the majority of defectors hail from the country’s North Hamgyung province, not Pyongyang, which means they are already at the low end of the North Korean economic scale. Moreover, those that are considered “educated” – the doctors, the technologists – find that their credentials earned in the North are unrecognized in the South. One defector who had practiced medicine in the North found that he had to essentially retake medical school because his knowledge was both outdated and far below expectations for doctors in the South.

Many defectors find that just saying they are from North Korea brings on discrimination from their Southern brethren. While South Koreans are known globally for being hyper-capitalist, higher-education junkies, North Koreans have a completely opposite image. Hailing from a country suffering extensive economic sanctions and questionable living standards, along with what many assume to be ideological brainwashing, defectors who announce their North Korean upbringing during job interviews in South Korea open themselves up to immediate discrimination. Many defectors try to hide their identity by calling themselves “Chinese-Koreans.” Defectors believe that Chinese-Koreans are respected by South Koreans a smidgen more than defectors.

Defectors who find success in South Korea are unsurprisingly those who are able to fully assimilate into society. In practice, this is harder than it may seem. The two Koreas use similar, but not identical, languages. South Koreans use many English-based words, not to mention the slang and other expressions that would be unfamiliar to outsiders. North Koreans, on the other hand, are generally poorly educated in English and have to learn new expressions as they go. Defectors can also find it hard to break into South Korea’s focus on background, where your hometown, school, and family can influence both where you work and how successful you become.

Many defectors find it most comfortable to hang around other defectors. However, those who have successfully assimilated have tried to make friends outside of their own community. They find that instead of hanging around those from the country they have left, finding new friends and striving to fit into a new environment has given them the confidence to live independently. While having a community of compatriots is important, those who have assimilated successfully find that that community can become a crutch, not a path to a new life in a new country.