Kim Sung-chul escaped North Korea four times.
The first time he left his home in rural Musan with his mother, he was just 17 years old. But a year into living in a foreign land — amid the icy villages of far northeast China — he caved into his homesickness. In the dead of winter, North Korean soldiers discovered him hiding in the freezing Tumen River separating the two countries, and pulled him out of the reeds.
After another aborted escape, he was back in China in his early twenties, working as a migrant laborer in the predominantly ethnic Korean city of Longjing and trying to track down his mother, when the police picked him up again. He was sent to a North Korean labor camp, where he chopped down trees from a mountain for months. But Kim escaped to China once more, only to be caught again. This time, he faced internment at a political camp. Kim narrowly avoided imprisonment through connections with a broker that paid off the authorities with a bribe, then moved him across the border.
After his final escape from the North, he reunited with his mother in a Chinese village not far away — only to lose her to cancer soon after. Six years after they left their hometown together, he finally made it to Seoul.
Today, life is different for 32-year-old Kim, one of the roughly 31,000 North Korean defectors living safely in South Korea. He runs his own business supplying Chinese car parts to Korean buyers in the country’s sprawling capital, and has a university degree in both international studies and social welfare. Thanks in part to Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), a small volunteer-run organization in Seoul equipping defectors with English skills, he’s also on the path to raising awareness of human rights violations in North Korea. Kim connected with TNKR last year because he wants to write an English-language memoir about his experiences.
“If you know English, you can tell your story to everyone in the world
“If you know English, you can tell your story to everyone in the world,” Kim told me when we met at TNKR, which pairs teachers with refugees for one-on-one language classes. The organization was started in 2013 by Lee Eun-koo, a South Korean national who left a government job working with North Korean refugees, and Casey Lartigue, Jr., an American expat who used to work as a policy analyst. Its goal is to build the confidence of North Korean refugees by teaching them English on their own terms, whether they’re looking to get ahead at work, take their first vacation abroad, or become a best-selling author.
“We don’t try to push them in any direction… that’s why they come to us,” said Lartigue, Jr. TNKR offers a learning track for refugees who want to talk about their own lives in North Korea on the international stage, which attracted Kim to the non-profit. While many refugees join TNKR to learn English, others join specifically to become advocates. So far, TNKR has matched some 350 defectors with English teachers. There’s a waiting list for refugees that can run over a month.
North Koreans flee the country for a number of reasons, including poor employment prospects, gross rights abuses, and harsh restrictions on personal freedom — all conditions which have arguably worsened under the young dictator Kim Jong-un. The majority of defectors usually cross into China and make their way to South Korea via an embassy in Southeast Asia, such as in Thailand or Laos. Because China sends fleeing North Koreans back, it’s a particularly dangerous journey — one that can take years and may cost tens of thousands of dollars.
“The number of North Koreans crossing into China is a statistic that nobody has a handle on,” said Arnold Fang, an East Asia researcher at Amnesty International. “We only know how many actually make it to the South.”
After being vetted for security purposes, most North Korean refugees who make it to the South are oriented at a large settlement support center called Hanawon, where they’re taught modern life skills, such as how to use ATMs and cell phones. After the three-month training, they’ll receive a free small apartment, and often subsidies for university education, from the government. Tuition can even be free or close to it.
But these services often fall short of preparing defectors for life in South Korea; even with education subsidies, there is a high university dropout rate for North Korean refugees, often because they have difficulty keeping up with a vastly different curriculum. Finding work isn’t easy, either — according to statistics from the government’s Ministry of Unification, which works on inter-Korean issues, only 55 percent of defectors in the South were employed last year. That’s likely due in part to exclusion from the workplace: According to a survey from Korea’s national rights watchdog conducted last year, about half of 500 defectors polled said they had suffered discrimination because of their North Korean origin, at work or on the street.
TNKR is one of just a handful of organizations that have cropped up to provide defectors with additional support. Another is Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a California-based non-profit with a smaller Seoul operation working to rescue defectors and help them adjust to the South. LiNK has helped North Koreans get oriented with Seoul after coming out of Hanawon, and is now gearing up to launch a small-scale English-language advocacy program. There’s also the Seoul-based Citizen’s Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, which fundraises for both advocacy campaigns and rescue missions.
“The system made everyone, including me, just believe that they cannot do anything — which is wrong.”
About 40 refugees have so far chosen TNKR’s advocacy track — including activist Yeonmi Park, who now lives in New York. Park’s 2015 memoir, In Order To Live, documents her difficult two-year journey through China, where she and her mother crossed through the Gobi Desert into Mongolia to reach a South Korean embassy. (Park did not respond to a request for comment on TNKR.) Other noted authors have come out of TNKR’s advocacy program, including Sungju Lee, whose escape story, Every Falling Star, came out in 2016, and who has spoken across the world on North Korean issues.
TNKR is by South Korean standards unorthodox: refugees can pick their tutors, how many tutors they want, and the topics that they want to study. “It’s a different approach,” said Lee. Government programs, she said, choose subjects for refugees, imparting practical information on employment, marriage, finances, and preparing for higher education via large and impersonal lectures.
Lee has worked on both ends of the spectrum with defectors, first with a big government agency and now with a tiny non-profit. She said because refugees are accustomed to living under a dictatorship, the South Korean authorities incorrectly assume they need to be told what to do. But the North Korean refugees she’s encountered, she said, prefer to exercise their own individual choice.
“It’s kind of the government’s view that minority groups need help — [that] they cannot choose, they do not know what freedom is, what the meaning of choice is,” said Lee. “The system made everyone, including me, just believe that they cannot do anything — which is wrong.”
When Kim finally reached Seoul in 2006, at 23 years old, he had to start much of his life over again. “I had to know how to solve math, science, [and speak] English — I didn’t know at the time,” he said. He enrolled in the Yeomyung School — an alternative school for North Korean refugees, mostly in their twenties and thirties, seeking elementary education.
“There’s a lot of catching up to do, and education is definitely one of those things,” said Sokeel Park, Director of Research and Strategy at LiNK. “In North Korea, a lot of focus is on learning the revolutionary history of the Kim Il-sung family. In South Korea you come in and obviously that’s completely useless; you wished you’d used that time studying English.”
A small fraction of defectors end up moving to other countries, but even for the majority that stay, learning English is increasingly essential. Korean universities require English skills, and some coursework is in English. In the country’s hyper-competitive job market — with youth unemployment at a record high — it’s also an important way to get a foot in the door.
Oddly enough, English is also helpful for integrating culturally. “We’ve adopted a lot of English, called ‘Konglish,’ which surprises a lot of North Koreans,” said Janice Kim, TNKR’s Academic Coordinator. The South Korean language has many English loan words that would be lost on North Koreans, whose language is still true to pure Korean from decades of isolation.
“When North Koreans resettle in South Korea, it’s like coming out of a time machine into a future version of Korean society,” said Park.
Sam — another North Korean refugee, who asked that he be referred to by his American nickname to protect his identity — joined the TNKR program to get a leg up. When Sam was 12 years old, his mother packed their belongings, and they crossed over into China, where they began a two-year journey to South Korea.
After arriving in Seoul, Sam enrolled in a local public school, and had trouble adjusting. He had never studied English before, and most of the other material was different than the North. Other students could detect his North Korean accent, and he found himself feeling socially isolated. “Whenever I said I’m from North Korea, they made some barriers between me and them. I couldn’t easily cross them,” Sam said.
Seventeen years later, at 29 years old, Sam lives a contented life with his girlfriend. (Sam asked that his profession not be revealed to protect his privacy.) He speaks English, which helped him get a desirable full-time job, and he’s also shed his accent from the North. But Sam worries about refugees who are too old to change their accents — and are thereby at greater risk for job discrimination. “Some of the defectors told me that they get lower wages compared to South Korean workers because they came from North Korea,” he said.
A 2015 survey conducted by the Ministry of Unification and the publicly funded Korean Hana Foundation showed that the average monthly income of North Koreans in South Korea was at 66 percent of the average South Korean income, at about $1,340 a month.
“It’s not easy for them to make a living,” said Fang, from Amnesty International. “We understand not only from interviews, but also from official statistics, [that] there’s still a difference in pay between those from North Korea and South Korea, given their same skill level and jobs.” Fang added that because the wage survey was conducted by the government, it can likely be taken as a conservative estimate of the income disparity.
Kim, the business owner and advocate, says he’s faced discrimination first-hand, alleging that a former boss berated him because he was North Korean and told him that if he ever left the company, no one else would hire him. Kim is determined to learn fluent English so that he can speak out about such challenges on the international stage. In February, he even came in second place at an English speech contest organized by TNKR.
For inspiration, Kim says he looks back to the time when he last saw his mother.
In the Chinese village where they were reunited after separately escaping North Korea, he remembered freezing from shock. Kim’s mother was emaciated — he said her body looked like an upside-down triangle as she struggled to survive with her cancer. She couldn’t join him on the long trek to South Korea — and not long after they saw each other, she died.
But not without asking her son for a promise, first.
“Before my mother passed away, she told me to study. She said, ‘Then you can help others,’” Kim said. “When I faced hardship studying and working in South Korea, I always remembered my mother’s last wish.”
Justin Heifetz is a freelance journalist based in Seoul.