SEOUL — When waves of North Koreans began arriving in the South during a devastating famine 20 years ago, many encountered a world that might as well have been on another planet.
They had to learn to use credit cards and smartphones, to withstand the noise and the bustle and the neon lights, to hold down jobs that actually required them to show up. They had to cope with disparaging remarks or insistent queries when South Koreans heard their accents or marveled if they couldn’t use a computer.
But many of the young men and women coming out of the North today? They’re thriving.
Entrepreneurial spirit, artistic expression and a will to compete are blossoming as they move abruptly from a country dedicated to a brutally enforced totalitarian personality cult to the tumult of South Korean capitalism.
And even as they lose their northern accents and embrace southern fashions, they don’t hide their roots.
“I’m proud of the fact that I’m North Korean. It’s a big part of my identity,” said Park Su-hyang, a 27-year-old who helped found Woorion, a network that helps escapees settle in the South, one of a crop of video bloggers trying to change stereotypes.
“We often think of refugees as victims, and North Koreans, as they adjust to a very different society in South Korea, inevitably do face challenges,” said Sokeel Park, South Korea country director for Liberty in North Korea, an organization that helps escapees from the North. “But in my work with hundreds of North Koreans who have settled here, I’ve been very impressed not just with their resilience but also with their creativity and ambition and their spirit for really making the most of their lives.”
These young and determined people, activists say, will be the ones who bridge the gap between the two Koreas if the countries are reunified. They are the test lab for reunification.
Here are the stories of five young people who made the perilous escape from North Korea and have found their feet in South Korea. Their remarks have been edited for clarity.
Oh Eun-jeong, 26, left Kyongsong (on the east coast just south of Chongjin) in 2009.
My dad was a sailor, and he had alcohol problems, but still, I had a happy childhood. I used to swim in the sea every morning and every afternoon after school. My forehead was always white because of the salt from the sea.
But then my mom left and my father was killed in a traffic accident, and my sister, who is 11 years younger than me, went to live with our grandma. I was living by myself in our family house. Then in 2009, I escaped, too.
In North Korea, I had read only one novel, which I’d borrowed from a neighbor. It was all torn and there were pages missing, but it was all I had. In South Korea, I was always reading. At college, I discovered a wonderful Korean literature professor whose way of teaching was very emotional, and I ended up taking three classes with him.
The whole time, I was writing down little notes in my phone. I didn’t even know that the notes I was writing were poetry. I was just scribbling spontaneously.
“Even though there is oppression, there were also moments of happiness, and I don’t have to deny those times.”
One fall day, I saw a maple tree with red burning foliage on campus. It was so beautiful, but I knew it would all be gone by the following week. Thinking about that made me think of the last time I saw my sister. At the time, I didn’t even know what a metaphor was, I just wrote.
The biggest motivation for me behind writing poetry was missing my sister so much. I was so full of hurt, I was overflowing with hurt, and I had to let it out onto the page. It was a whole new world to me. I felt like each cell in my body was coming to life.
My first book came out in 2015. It’s called “Calling Home.” I was invited onto a TV channel, and I gave poetry readings. That’s how I was selected as a rising poet, and I was asked to contribute to another collection.
A lot of my works are related to North Korea. I have such fond memories of there. Even though there is oppression, there were also moments of happiness, and I don’t have to deny those times. People are hungry and life is hard, but the essence of humanity is the same.
Kang Min, 31, left Bukchong in 2007
When I was 10 years old, during the famine, my mother and I were traveling together, but we got separated and I never saw her again. From that time on, I had to fend for myself. At first I was so hungry I would eat anything I found on the ground. I started begging, but people weren’t offering food to me. So I learned to steal. I would have died if I didn’t steal.
When I was about 15 years old, I began selling apricots on trains. Then I sold cigarettes, and moved on to plastic Chinese kitchen goods like lunchboxes and utensils, and at the end I was selling bicycle tires.
When I first got to South Korea, I thought about going to college. But I wanted to start a business, and I wanted real-life experience. I could see that smartphones were big business, so I started an online store. I would buy aronia berries, a popular health food, close to their expiration date, then sell them on the Internet. Then I started growing wild roses for making soap and room fragrance and tea.
Working on online shopping platforms had opened my eyes to IT opportunities. So in 2016, I also started a website design business. That’s my main business now.
“In the future, I want to be in a business related to North Korea so I can help children who had a difficult childhood like me.”
Then one day, I was walking in front of Seoul Station, and I thought to myself: Why are there so many fast-food outlets in South Korea when there are healthy Korean options? I thought about Korean food that was convenient like fast food and started making tofu pockets stuffed with rice and selling them in paper boxes.
Potential investors asked who would eat North Korean food. But the reason I chose tofu rice is not because it’s North Korean food, but because it has market potential, because it’s convenient to eat on the go.
When people realize I’m from North Korea, they say: ‘Do you even know anything about business or capitalism?’ But I had faith in my business acumen and my abilities, and now I’m getting inquiries about franchising my tofu rice business. I can’t achieve anything if I get disillusioned. In July, I’m going to the United States to learn about entrepreneurship.
In the future, I want to be in a business related to North Korea so I can help children who had a difficult childhood like me.
The Company Man
Kim Sang-woon, 30, left Tanchon in 2009. He works at a subsidiary of SK Corp.
When I was at college in North Korea, I was watching South Korean dramas and other foreign media. I realized that North Korea was so backward, and I wanted to travel on a plane and enjoy life. So I decided to escape.
When I got to South Korea, I had to spend a year preparing for college entrance, so I applied to work part time at a call center because I thought it would be easy. But as soon as they heard my accent, they asked me how I thought I could work at a call center. So I started sticking up posters at 4 o’clock every morning, and I worked on a phone assembly line.
Then 2011, I entered university and started studying international trade and Chinese. I knew even in North Korea that people who were engaged in international trade could travel around the world and earn lots of money. During my senior year, I did an internship at Hyundai Heavy Industries and spent some time in the Beijing office because of my Chinese.
Everyone seemed so competent and talented, and I didn’t think I could get into one of these big companies, but I just tried to take it step by step. I had this conviction, so I studied very hard, and opportunities like the internship arose.
“I never hide where I’m from. It’s a big point of pride for me.”
I even had the chance to go to the United States with an entrepreneurship foundation. I went to New York and Boston, and I even visited Harvard.
When I graduated, I applied to SK. I did the entrance exam and went through two rounds of interviews. There were a lot of smart people among the competitors, but I think coming from North Korea and having overcome so many difficulties helped me to get my job. I never hide where I’m from. It’s a big point of pride for me.
Now I am a supply-chain manager, I’m in charge of bidding tenders. My job is to get the right price. I know the taste of money.
In 10 years’ time, I want to be back in North Korea, running the SK office in Pyongyang. North Korean people are very hard-working, like South Koreans, but the society is not a meritocracy and that stops people from living up to their potential. Once North Korea opens up, I think there will be a lot of potential for development.
Park Su-hyang, 27, left North Hamgyong in 2009
After I had graduated from high school here, I started working in a convenience store to make money to pay back the $12,000 in debt I had to the broker who got me out of North Korea. I was also preparing for my college entrance exam, and in 2014, I started studying social work at university.
But I realized that South Koreans didn’t know the reality of North Korea. There are aspects of North Korea that are exaggerated in South Korea, sensationalized for political reasons. I wanted to tell people about real life inside North Korea and make sure they knew that there are humans who are living there.
I consider myself an introvert, but I felt that I could do it on YouTube. I didn’t know anything about shooting video. I just started on my phone and taught myself how to edit. My first video was Lunar New Year and introducing how it is celebrated in North Korea, which is quite different from South Korea.
“I really wanted to separate the lives of the North Korean people from politics and counteract the exaggerated views of North Korea.”
My most popular video is “10 Things That I Found Most Interesting in South Korea.” I talked about how surprised I was to see so much variety on television in South Korea. In North Korea, there’s only one television channel. I also thought it was amazing that you could turn on the tap, and hot water would come out. At home in North Korea, we had to boil water to have a bath. I think this video was popular because South Koreans want to hear about South Korea more than they want to hear about North Korea.
I don’t earn much money from doing this, but that’s not the reason I do it. I really wanted to separate the lives of the North Korean people from politics and counteract the exaggerated views of North Korea.
I also wanted people to understand that it’s difficult for North Koreans to live here. Even though we speak the same language, North Korean defectors face a lot of difficulties. In North Korea, we don’t have foreign loan words, so when I started working in the convenience store, I didn’t know words like “Band-Aid” or “stocking.” In 2015, I became a founding member of Woorion, a network to help North Korean defectors.
With these videos, I hope I can promote mutual understanding.
Jeon Geum-ju, 32, left Hoeryong in 2008
I got good grades in high school, so I thought I’d go to college. But I discovered that only the children of high-level officials are sent to college. The state assigned me to a shoe factory that didn’t produce any shoes. I ended up just doing manual labor like digging and planting trees.
One day when I was 20, I met a Chinese girl who was traveling with her family in North Korea, and she told me about South Korea. It was a pivotal moment for me. I’d never even left my city, but I was inspired to leave.
I was 24 years old when I arrived in South Korea. I was so conflicted about going to college. I would have been 30 by the time I graduated. I did an accounting qualification instead because I was good at math.
My childhood dream was to be a florist. I used to go into the mountains in North Korea and collect flowers. So I started working for a florist free on Wednesday and Friday nights after work and on Saturdays from dawn. And I was also taking English classes. I was really tired, but when I was working in the flower shop, I was so happy. I began looking into this seriously as a career.
“I always made myself available early in the morning and late at night. Because of this, doors opened to me.”
I saw that many successful florists had studied in Europe. I saved up my earnings from the accountancy job for three years so I could study in Europe. But first, I got an opportunity to study in the United States to learn English for a year, but I couldn’t get a visa. So instead I went to Canada for three months.
Then I went to the U.K. to do a six-month floristry course. I loved it so much. I got an internship with a very prestigious florist in London. I started with menial work like cleaning, but I was sometimes allowed to arrange the flowers myself. So I always made myself available early in the morning and late at night. Because of this, doors opened to me. Now I work here at this academy as a floristry teacher, and I run an online store selling bouquets of flowers. My dream is to open my own flower shop. Usually, people just buy flowers and walk out, but I want my place to be a place where people can sit and chat face-to-face surrounded by flowers.
Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.