LOS ANGELES—She sits in the middle of her Los Angeles restaurant, piling a big spoonful of kimchi, tofu, and pork filling into a damp dumpling skin. Her fingers work deftly, folding the thin sheet into neat corner pleats. Press, pinch, fold over. Repeat. The tray quickly fills up with plump, flour-dusted parcels.
“They’re a blend of North and South,” Kim Jung Yi said of her dumplings, her nimble fingers never stopping. “I try to tailor to Southern tastes by including one or two ingredients they like, but the recipe is Northern.”
By north, she means her home country, North Korea. She fluffs her fat kimchi dumplings with minced tofu—North Korean style—but also adds handfuls of sweet potato starch noodles, a popular ingredient in South Korean-style dumplings.
Kim, a 5-foot-tall moon-faced woman, looks like any other Koreatown ahjumma (middle-aged woman) with her tight, cropped perm and plump, generous hands. Customers who tuck into her steaming boats of spicy fish stew and Korean blood sausages look into her bright, crinkle-eyed smile, and never guess that she was once a North Korean military officer. They also never guess that every night, she and her husband push dining chairs together to create two makeshift beds, because their only shelter is the restaurant. Or that they are two months behind on their car payment.
Kim and her husband are just two of the thousands of North Korean refugees struggling to adjust to the world outside of North Korea’s Kim regime. In North Korea, they struggled to survive famine and a totalitarian system. Outside of North Korea, they still struggle, this time to survive discrimination, loneliness, and financial hardship.
After retiring from the military, Kim started selling clothes over the border in China to survive, determined not to be another North Korean who starves to death as an obedient communist. But her private clothing business led her deeper and deeper into Chinese terrain, until she realized she was too far away from the border to return safely.
Not that she wanted to. While interacting with Chinese businesspeople, Kim listened to them talk about South Korea’s wealth and advanced technology. She was amazed. From her youth, she had heard tragic tales about starving orphans in the impoverished brethren country: “That’s when I realized how I’ve been deceived my whole life. The more I heard about South Korea, the more my heart opened and my curiosity got piqued. I got hooked, mesmerized, by this different image of South Korea.”
Kim took a boat from China down to South Korea, leaving behind all her family. She still remembers gazing in wonder at the gleaming night lights and skyscrapers in Seoul. But she most fondly recalls walking out into the streets at night to the rows of pojangmachas (Korean street food carts), biting into skewers of boiled fish cakes, and slurping down bowls of vapor-crowned broth that warmed her belly. “I can’t ever forget the taste,” she said. “It all tasted so good and fascinating to me.”
She met her now-husband, Charles Kim, in Seoul, while working as a receptionist at a hospital. Her husband, a former trader, defected from North Korea during a three-year business trip to Russia. Out of 10 co-workers, he was the only one to survive the escape. They married and then moved to the United States.
They’ve lived in Arizona, New York, Las Vegas, and Washington, D.C., working in kitchens and learning how to cook so that one day they could open their own restaurant. Yu Hyang Soondae restaurant is the fulfillment of their American Dream. “I can’t tell you how many tears I’ve shed,” Kim said. “So many tears, so much suffering. At times I even just wanted to die.”
Other refugees don’t ever adjust. Homesick and overwhelmed by life in South Korea, some re-defect to North Korea. This year alone, about 100 North Korean refugees returned north, causing policymakers in South Korea to fret over what they’re doing wrong.
According to an International Crisis Group report, North Koreans are “sicker and poorer than their Southern brethren, with significantly worse histories of nutrition and medical care.” Nearly half of the more than 23,000 defectors were unemployed as of January 2012. Many who do find employment try to keep their status secret.
That’s why Kim considers her story a success. Although she and her husband struggle financially day by day, they still own a business with potential. In a few months, the restaurant Yu Hyang Soondae will be celebrating its three-year anniversary. Customers trickle in and out throughout the day, while the Kims bustle around with big smiles, scampering around to serve the banchan (side dishes) and barley tea they prepared that morning.
Despite being able to earn several times more on Sundays, the Kims shut down their restaurant in observance of Sunday worship. Instead, they prepare food for their church the night before, and open up their restaurant at dawn to people who want to have morning prayers.
Kim said she realized how futile humans are without God: “People who know us wonder, how do they live so brightly with so little? But I tell them I couldn’t have done this without God. Every time I get down on my knees to pray to God, He works miracles.” After all her experiences, Kim said she has no fear now.
Instead, every night, as Kim and her husband drape thick blankets over dining chairs to sleep in, she reminds her husband how fortunate they are to be sleeping in a warm, cozy room. “Even when I’m washing the dishes, I’m thanking God,” she said. “And I ask Him to humble me more, to teach me how to empathize and help other people because I understand what it is like to suffer.”
Neither Kim misses South Korea. While living there for eight years, Charles Kim felt South Koreans “closing their hearts” to their Northern brethren. “We just couldn’t connect on all levels,” he said. He prefers America because “everybody is equal with a fair chance to achieve the American Dream”—all immigrants go through the same hurdles—whereas in South Korea, being a North Korean comes with indelible stereotypes. “I’ve found freedom and peace here,” he said.
Hannah Song, president of LiNK, a grassroots organization that helps North Korean refugees, said many North Korean refugees have a hard time adjusting to life in South Korea. “The North Korean people are seen as ‘the other,’ especially by South Koreans,” she said. Even if the North Korean refugees don’t reveal their origins, it’s easy to detect them, “from their shoes to their socks to their accent.” (North Koreans speak with a fluctuating accent.)
Since North Korea has been stuck in a 1950s-era culture for so long, North Korean refugees have to relearn everything, from riding public transportation to using credit cards. One woman, for example, stared in amazement at the ATM machine, wondering how a person could fit into that little box. Kids and teenagers especially have a hard time adjusting, because bullying is rampant in South Korean schools. Song recalled a teenage boy who dyed his hair a shocking pink, thinking he was following Korean pop fashion.
But the biggest hurdle for them is rebuilding an identity. “In North Korea, there’s not a strong sense of identity, because their identity is in the ideology and propaganda,” Song said. “So when they escape, they really have to figure out for themselves: Who am I? What are my own dreams?” The idea of liberty and working hard toward personal success is a foreign concept to them, because they didn’t have many choices in North Korea. Sometimes it is easier for North Korean refugees to restart their life in the United States, despite language barriers. —S.L.