Grateful escape

"Grateful escape" Continued...

Issue: "Maximum insecurity," Feb. 23, 2013

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.”

North Koreans in South Korea

THE OTHER KOREA: Market in Seoul, South Korea
SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg/Getty Images
THE OTHER KOREA: Market in Seoul, South Korea

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.

Sophia Lee
Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.


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