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Surviving the ‘time machine’: Helping North Korean defectors to the South

Woorion's Seoul-based team of seven is made up of North Korean defectors and South Koreans. (Michelle Ye Hee Lee/The Washington Post)

SEOUL — There’s a saying in South Korea that “you only see what you know,” which has particular resonance for defectors from North Korea who have moved from one of the most isolated countries on earth to one of the most connected and feel like they “know” very little.

In a country where everything is online and usually accessed via a smartphone — both of which are inaccessible in much of the North — these newcomers can feel like they’ve traveled forward in time. Although they speak the same language and look the same as those living in the South, life here can feel so utterly foreign.

“My defector friends describe it as feeling like they took a time machine, from the 1900s to the 21st century,” said Daehyeon Park, who himself defected to the South, but only after spending several years in Britain, giving him the computer skills — and the English — needed to navigate the globalized city of Seoul.

Recognizing the difficulty and alienation his fellow defectors face, Park sat down with several at a coffee shop and compared notes on what they knew when they first arrived. They found that although there were about 40 organizations helping defectors, each had its own website, and there was no central place to go to learn about them.

That coffee meeting grew into Woorion, a deeply connected and influential network of defectors that Park now leads, serving a third of South Korea’s defector community. Woorion is a one-stop information hub, connecting North Koreans with the resources and community they need to successfully integrate their new lives in the South.

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Woorion is a household name among defector circles, but for years, it kept a low profile so that it could focus on its community. Now, Park has big dreams for the future of his organization and wants to showcase to the international community what his generation of defectors is capable of.

“I want to explore my community’s voice. I want to do something good for our community and the future with more people,” said Park, 31. “It’s now time to build a community overseas.”

The first few years after a defector’s arrival is when they are most vulnerable and can fall through the cracks — an issue underscored by a rare re-defection of a North Korean who struggled to adjust in Seoul and decided to return to the North.

The only official support for defectors is a three-month orientation course run by the South Korean government, which provides just a glimpse into what it takes to survive and thrive in the cutthroat capitalistic society of South Korea, which has high youth unemployment and soaring housing prices.

As of last fall, there were at least 33,815 North Korean defectors living in the South, according to the Unification Ministry’s official figures. The majority are women, and more than half of those who defect are in their 20s and 30s — in need of education and careers, and in search of stability, like marriage and a family. They usually escape alone.

Adulting is hard as it is, and it’s even more so as a refugee fleeing a poor and socialist country under a totalitarian regime to South Korea, the 10th biggest economy in the world. Many are already distrustful of people and institutions, and often struggle with trauma, which can create additional barriers to assimilation.

They are vulnerable to financial fraud schemes, often from multilevel marketing and “get rich quick” investment deals targeting the newly arrived defectors. They also face fake brokers who promise to help them send money back to their families in the North but instead just bilk them.

Park’s organization, which works out of an unassuming office space in Seoul, is run by a team of seven millennials and Gen Zers who especially want to help the younger generation who make up the largest share of defectors.

“The problem they face is getting information. They never had experience with IT, technology, emails, Internet,” Park said. “The majority of my community is facing this problem, so I decided to solve this problem.”

In the early years of Woorion, Park started a messaging group on KakaoTalk, the main South Korean messaging app, blasting out information that would help other refugees. More than 5,000 signed up within the first year. People started donating clothes and household items to each other. Older North Korean refugees made meals for younger ones who yearned for their mom’s homemade food back home.

“I knew that if we continued this, it would be life-changing for my community,” he said.

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In recent years, a younger generation of North Koreans in South Korea has emerged as ambitious and creative entrepreneurs, with many determined to show North Korean defectors as resilient contributors to South Korean society rather than victims.

Park is “a good example of this new generation of North Korean entrepreneurs and how they’re not just receiving, but creating solutions for themselves and their communities and their broader society,” said Sokeel Park, South Korea country director of Liberty in North Korea, which helps North Koreans resettle in the South.

Woorion maintains a robust database, which allows his group to poll members and use data to evolve and curate the information their community needs the most. The organization is looking for international research partners to help bring more attention to the experience of these North Koreans.

The group also has a YouTube channel with life and job tips, including pros and cons of talking about your defector background during job interviews, benefits of going to therapy and avoiding fraud.

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“Everybody needs those kinds of networks and connections, and the simple truth is that the vast majority of North Korean refugees leave their whole community, their network, in North Korea, and there’s no way to lean back on that,” said Sokeel Park. “They’re completely dislocated from it, having to start from scratch.”

Inspired by the Forbes “30 Under 30” list, Woorion launched an online magazine for millennial and Gen Z defectors, which shares the experiences of those who have become entrepreneurs and corporate executives.

Woorion’s Park now aspires to more directly address some of the most common obstacles faced by defectors, like creating a credit union so that North Koreans can access loans at affordable rates. With no credit history, defectors struggle to obtain loans to start businesses and often are charged high interest rates.

With post-traumatic stress disorder common among North Korean defectors, Woorion also plans to increase mental health resources.

Park said he wants to see the community step up for each other and fill the gaps that no amount of support from the South Korean government can fill.

“Society is moving fast … and even though they’re learning from [the government upon arrival], it’s impossible to understand fully about this society,” he said. “It’s now up to North Korean communities. We need to have the ownership of our community and understand the importance of our roles for our community.”

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