Home Features North Korean defectors overcome challenges to rebuild their lives

North Korean defectors overcome challenges to rebuild their lives

After feeding her young daughter, Kim Hye-jung washed the dishes in her Seoul apartment. It was Christmas eve 2005.

When the home phone rang, it was her 3-year-old daughter Yejin who answered it. Instead of handing over the phone to her mom, Yejin began talking to who was at the other end of the line. She began describing to the caller what her mother was doing.

“Who are you telling that I’m washing the dishes?” Hye-jung asked her daughter. Hye-jung took the phone from her daughter and questioned who was at the other end of the line.

“It’s me,” the caller said.

Hye-jung immediately recognized it was Choi Ji-hoon, her ex-boyfriend and the father of her daughter. He was calling from North Korea where they had their relationship.

Ji-hoon was calling from a mountain near the North Korea-China border. He was using a Chinese mobile phone via the Chinese network. Within a week from the call he managed to defect to South Korea and eventually he became Hye-jung’s husband.

North Korean elite

Hye-jung was born into a North Korean elite class but she left to give birth to her daughter, leaving behind her privileges in the process.

Before coming to South Korea, Hye-jung was a medical student in the North. Her mother was the head of a state-run research institute; her two sisters were a nurse and a musician. Once she graduated from the medical school, her career would be guaranteed by the North Korean regime.

“I had never thought of coming to the South,” Hye-jung said.

In her first year at the Chongjin Medical University, Hye-jung fell in love with Ji-hoon who was one of her peers.

And, eventually she fell pregnant.

Virginity until marriage was important in conservative North Korean culture, Hye-jung said. “In North Korea, those who get pregnant during university years mostly abort,” she said. Whilst abortion was illegal in the North, it was possible with a doctor’s help, she added.

North Korean men, who are ambitious for success, hardly get married before graduating university, Hye-jung explained. She did not inform Ji-hoon of her pregnancy.

“If I’d still been in North Korea, I would never have given birth to my daughter,” Hye-jung said. Giving birth to a child out of marriage and marriage before graduation was unthinkable, she said.

Her only other option was to flee to China.

In May 2002, Hye-jung conducted a night crossing of the Tumen River which flows between China and North Korea.

She gave birth to Yejin in the winter of the year.

Two years later, Hye-jung managed to leave China and defect to South Korea for the benefit of her daughter’s future.

North Korean defector Kim Hye-jung. (Photo by Seungmock Oh)

With the South Korean government’s help Hye-jung and her daughter rented an unfurnished apartment in the Seoul district of Yangcheon-gu, where many North Korean defectors lived. She had some money from the government, but she had to work for her and her daughter’s living.

In the South, Hye-jung had no relatives who could help care for her daughter while working and felt she had no choice but to put her child into a 24-hour child-care centre where her daughter would come home only once a week.

Hye-jung’s first job was working 13 hours a day for a mobile phone component manufacturer.

Each day she would come back to her empty home where she could not stop thinking of her daughter.

“I was afraid to go home, because of thoughts about my child at night,” she said. 

Hye-jung took on more part-time jobs delivering newspapers and milk from midnight to 5:30am. She was only managing several hours sleep a night.

For the first six years in the South, Hye-jung saved most of the money she earned, spending only about $300 per month, she said.

When she had time, Hye-jung went to churches in a bid to find a quiet atmosphere to pray and reflect.

“Priests and Catholics seemed to always have peaceful minds,” she added.

Despite herself not being a Christian, these quiet periods of reflection helped Hye-jung overcome the mental strains of what she was enduring.

Trouble adapting

Hye-jung said she knew of many North Korean defectors who struggled to settle in the South.

“The police visited the apartment block daily,” she said. Distressed North Korean defectors in the apartment got drunk and fought every day, Hye-jung said. Some of them committed suicide in their first few months in the South, she added.

Whilst South Korea’s capitalist system rewards people on their merits, North Korean defectors arrive empty handed and they’re more than likely to remain poor, said Kim Mi Kyung, the team leader of the Korea Reconciliation Committee of the Seoul Archdiocese.

The defectors have cultural and even some language differences, Mi Kyung said adding that many of them are discriminated against. The two Koreas’ cultures and languages developed in different ways since the country was divided 70 years ago.

The Catholic Church is active in supporting North Korean defectors settle in the South through initiatives such as mentoring, and social activities like the choir singing, travelling, and volunteering, Mi Kyung said.

More than 1,000 North Koreans defect to South Korea annually, according to the Ministry of Unification. Just over 33,000 North Koreans have defected to the South.

The reunion

After graduating from medical school in the North, Ji-hoon defected to the South in January 2006 and became Hye-jung’s husband. His medical credentials were not valid in the South, so he too began life again, but he struggled to adapt, Hye-jung said. In the North, people’s career was arranged by the government. In the South, finding a job was more competitive.

Eventually, he studied computers at a vocational college and became an engineer designing industrial robots.

It took 20 months until Hye-jung and Ji-hoon became economically stable enough to bring back their daughter from the 24-hour day care centre.

Life in time became stable for the family.

Eight years ago, the couple had another daughter who they named Yewon. As a pastime Yewon sings in the Unitas Angels children choir of the Seoul Archdiocese which consists of the children of North Korean defectors.

Hye-jung’s eldest daughter Yejin is now 16 and has her mind set on one day studying biological science in a university.

Meanwhile Ji-hoon is also doing well in his career while Hye-jung, now 39, is running a restaurant.

“This is now my home, here we are building our family,” she said.

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