My interaction with North Korean Youth Defectors

EUC ended a few days back on 29 July 2016. As one of the group leaders, I was assigned to a group of 7 students: 5 South Korean girls and 2 North Korean boys, and assisted by an assistant leader or TA (Teacher’s Assistant). The entire camp was 5 days and 4 nights, and through this post, I will be sharing what I’ve experienced at the camp.

The girls in my group were between age 10-13, whereas the boys, Han-il and Gwang-myung, were aged 14 and 15 respectively. Initially when introduced to the group, the boys were rather unenthusiastic after finding out that our group comprised mostly of girls. The boys even resorted to calling them ‘midgets’ and were rather disinterested in participating in the group activities.  Thankfully however, with time, the boys slowly warmed up to the rest of the group members. It helped that the girls were proactive and friendly as well, being open to playing sports like soccer, overall helping with the team bonding.

As I interacted with them, I found myself wondering, “Who knows what these boys went through?” And granted that they went through so much, I wasn’t expecting them to be like other kids. Maybe I was expecting them to be sullen and depressed, uncooperative and silent. And even if they behaved like how I expected them to, I don’t think I would take it personally. Heck, if I went through what they did, I probably would do all that.

But what I experienced, was far from what I had expected. Yes, they were initially like clams, unwilling to open up, but who isn’t when meeting new faces? What really touched me was how they cared for our group in their own little ways. Verbally, they would moan and groan over the fact that we had too many girls, but their actions showed otherwise. Every time during breakfast / lunch / dinner, without fail, they would get water for our entire group. And whenever there was a missing member, they would ask where that member was. Also, the boys made the effort to know each and every one of our names after the first day, by repeatedly asking and checking to make sure they got our names right.

During my time with the boys, they didn’t share much about their life story / what they went through. And as much as I was curious, I decided against probing because I knew that it was a delicate issue. And who was I for them to share their personal struggles? To them, I was probably seen as a mere stranger / acquaintance. Likewise for me, I wouldn’t just share my struggles with anybody. If I did share, it would be with people I trust.

But through my little exchanges with them, I was able to piece together and guess what they went through. For instance, on the first day during ice breakers, I asked a question to my group about their favorite color. When it was Gwang-myung’s turn, he said that his favorite color was black, and when I asked him for the reason, what he said left such a strong impact on me. Gwang-myung said black was his favorite color because it was like his heart, he didn’t feel anything. Although Gwang-myung said that with a laugh, trying not to make it sound serious, when I heard that, my heart broke a little inside. I knew there was more than what met the surface… Gwang-myung was trying to numb his emotions because he saw and experienced so much. He didn’t want to feel beause he wanted to protect himself. Because, that was his defence mechanism, his way to survive.

black heart

With Han-il, I could sense that he went through a lot as well. Outside, he seemed jovial, cracking jokes. However, the little remarks that he unconsciously made, reflected hurt and resentment.  I could see that he was desperately trying to find a community where he could belong to, and maybe because he felt like it wasn’t working, he was feeling frustrated. On the last night, I had my thoughts confirmed. The school principal approached me to ask Han-il was doing after finding out that I was his group leader. She shared how Han-il had a tough childhood, how he defected to Yanji, China with his mother when he was 4, and his father passed away in a car accident. But while they were in China, his mother got caught and was repatriated to North Korea. As a result, Han-il grew up alone in the Chinese orphanage till he was 13.

If the two Koreas never separated, these boys would never have had to go through such painful experiences. From these experiences come long-lasting scars that may never be healed. And even if they do get healed overtime, I’m sure these boys will never forget the trauma and pain for the rest of their lives.

And even though the camp has ended, I’m thankfully still in touch with these two boys. I’m glad that they are open to keeping in contact with me, and though I may not be their group leader anymore, I wish to be there for them as a friend. These boys are so precious and kind, and I’m so privileged to have had them in my group. We are currently in the midst of planning a trip to Lotte World, and hopefully everything goes according to plan! 🙂

I’m not able to upload a picture of the boys due to security reasons, but I do have a drawing of their faces from my fellow group member who so sweetly drew all our group members’ faces on her tote bag ^^


Let’s keep North Korea in our prayers, for restoration and healing.


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Currently living and pursuing my undergraduate studies in South Korea.

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