My experience with a North Korean defector

I had the privilege of attending a workshop hosted by the Ministry of Unification that took place from 13 -14 May. During this workshop, I had the opportunity to meet with a North Korean defector, a lady who appeared somewhere in her forties.

When I first saw her, I was somewhat surprised. The lady had such a friendly and pleasant persona that I would never have guessed she was a North Korean defector. Maybe in my mind I was picturing someone bitter and resentful, which is fully understandable especially if one experienced the oppressive North Korean regime. Things were set into perspective when I heard the moderator of the Q&A session forbidding us to ask questions pertaining to her family back home in North Korea. He didn’t elaborate much, but it was enough for me to catch on; family of North Korean defectors ended up being under heavy surveillance, sent to prison camps or even tortured. In some cases, they simply ‘disappeared’.

Some background information on the North Korean defector: (Let’s call her Ms. Kim for convenience’s sake) Ms. Kim defected to South Korea in 2010, and it has been her sixth year here in South Korea so far. She is currently co-heading a school for North Korean defectors’ children. The school, called “미래소망스쿨” (literally translating to “Future Hope School” in English) is located in Nowon-gu in Seoul and is fully funded by Somang church. The school targets elementary school students with the objective of eventually helping them integrate into the local school system in South Korea. (For more details visit the school’s site:

When asked on what was the most difficult part adapting to South Korean society, Ms. Kim said it was language, at least for people in her age group. Although both South Korea and North Korea use the Korean language, there are significant differences between the two. South Korea has many of its modern words taken from English (e.g. chocolate, shampoo, cake et cetera), whereas North Korea has distinct terms for the above items mentioned, which may be quite confusing for the North and South Koreans when they communicate.

Ms Kim decided to write a book to help other North Korean defectors better integrate into the South Korean society, through her own personal experiences.

Directly translates into “Busy Lifestyle Manner”

I haven’t got the time to properly read it but as I flipped to the book index, I saw that the book was classified into categories like “Manners used in Greetings”, “Manners in Public Spaces” and “How to make a good first impression”, just to name a few.

During the Q&A session, I wanted confirmation of what I heard from a guide that I had during my visit to Yanji, China last year; whether it was true that North Korean defectors preferred to escape to China via the Tumen River over the Yalu River. In response, Ms. Kim replied that what I knew was the reality, and stated matter-of-factly why this was the case. As I listened to her, I found myself wondering if she too crossed over to China via the Tumen River, and imagining how it must have been like for her to leave her family behind, and how terrified she must have been while escaping. She didn’t share the details of how she escaped and throughout the entire Q&A session, I never saw her get emotional. However for some reason, that left a deep impact on me. There was no need for words to understand her past predicament; she had to remain strong in order to survive. Even now, I could tell she was still trying to be strong, for herself, for her family.

My encounter with Ms. Kim has inspired me in various ways. It reminded me of the importance of my role as a student reporter, and that there is always hope even in the seemingly hopeless moments; that the night is darkest just before the dawn.


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Currently living and pursuing my undergraduate studies in South Korea.

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