This is the second in a two-part series about how PSCORE helps North Korean defectors. See the Sharing page for Nov. 10 for an overview of PSCORE’s services. ― Ed.
For many North Koreans the Tumen River, east of Mount Baekdu, is a natural border not only with China, but the rest of the world.
Unlike the swift, deep Yalu River to the west, the Tumen is relatively shallow and narrow, making it a preferred means for discontented North Koreans to escape despite the regular patrolling of border guards.
Julia was one of those who fled the North six years ago. She had recently finished college, where she studied nursing, and it wasn’t uncommon for North Korean graduates to have a job prepared for them.
With the nation’s fortunes continuing to decline since the famine of the 1990s, though, there was no job waiting for her. With no prospects, but some familiarity with South Korean life thanks to contraband copies of South Korean TV dramas, she chose to flee.
“I had no job, nothing,” she said. “I thought, ‘North Korea is not that good so I don’t want to live here.’”
One night around midnight she snuck across the shallow but frigid river and made her way into China, where thousands of ethnic Koreans have settled. Within four months she’d be in Beijing, working in a restaurant for 13 hours every day but Sunday, when she had to work a mere seven. She maintained this schedule for two years, until presented with the opportunity to board a boat to South Korea.
Arriving at a port near Incheon, she was given a place to stay by the authorities. She began learning English and began studying at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, where she majors in life sciences in the hope of becoming a doctor. Her father and brother joined her in South Korea earlier this year.
Even with these opportunities, she and other North Koreans struggle daily adapting to a country where technology is decades ahead of theirs, to a society where they know almost no one, and to a Korean language that has changed through decades of foreign influence.
“It was so hard to adapt because I have no friends and no family,” she said. Furthermore, as defectors come from a communist society, they are used to having more provided to them by the government, making it difficult to adjust to the South’s work ethic.
“(Defectors) have to do their best, but they’re still at the bottom because South Koreans, you know, are very smart,” Julia said.
A North Korean defector takes a lesson from a South Korean PSCORE volunteer. (PSCORE)
Now, though, she receives additional help through PSCORE, an NGO based in Seoul that assists defectors by arranging for them to meet volunteers to learn English and other subjects.
Julia spends up to two hours each week learning with Nova Mercier, a 24-year-old New Zealander doing graduate work at Sungkyunkwan.
“She’s just a normal person,” Mercier said of Julia. “She doesn’t strike me as really different.”
When they started, Mercier said she stuck to a fairly rigid teaching method but these days keeps things more casual, more conversational.
“She’s good at English, but not because of me,” Mercier said.
Julia has enjoyed interacting with the non-Koreans she has met through PSCORE, even more than with South Koreans.
“Maybe for one or two years it was hard to communicate (with South Koreans),” she said. “Thinking is different. Words too, because they have the English and Konglish.
“I want to meet a lot of foreigners,” she said, adding that she could really use a physics tutor. An accidental escape
Seong-ho was not eager to meet non-Koreans when he crossed into South Korea in 2010. He clearly remembers North Korean propaganda, which taught him to equate capitalism with murder, and to fear people with big noses and light-colored hair.
These days he learns English with Richard Whitten, a brown-haired Australian who also volunteers through PSCORE.
“To learn, to share ... it’s not bad, it’s not scary,” Seong-ho said. “Almost everything from the North is a lie.”
Now ensconced in the South, Seong-ho has many strongly worded views as to why South Korea is a better place to live than his country of birth.
“In North Korea there is nothing in the future,” he said, explaining that success there depends entirely on how dedicated one’s family has been in the past. “If (one’s family) are loyal, their children will be rewarded. If not, nothing. It’s not justice.”
Strong opinions from someone whose escape wasn’t entirely intentional.
Like Julia, Seong-ho is from the northeastern part of the peninsula and crossed the Tumen in October 2009. His sister had fled previously and Seong-ho was taking their mother across so that she could be with her daughter.
While in China, though, word got to Seong-ho that he had been spotted helping someone out of North Korea and the border guards were looking for him. Though he bears a sentimental attachment to his hometown even today, he knew he could not return.
“I’m happy to be out of that sort of bad government,” he said, “... (but) I have so many friends and relatives in my hometown. I hope in the future it will be better ... (if so) I will go back to my hometown.”
During that October it was a national holiday in China, at a time of regular inspections by Chinese police. With a little help he obtained a phony ID, and thanks to his hometown’s proximity to China he had learned enough Chinese to satisfy the police’s cursory investigations.
Deciding not to press his luck in China he traversed the entire country within a week to get to Laos. Upon crossing the border, he was taken into custody, spending two months in jail and another two in a refugee center. After being found by South Korea’s Laotian embassy, Seong-ho spent about three months in the care of the South Korean government, being educated about a whole new society. Even now, it’s one that seems to amaze him.
“North Koreans can’t imagine this sort of situation,” he said. “If I want to speak anything, I can say anything.”
Upon arriving in Korea he spent several months as a manual laborer, eventually realizing that if he wanted more out of life he would need an education. In the North he aspired to become a Chinese interpreter, a goal he has not abandoned. To survive in South Korean society, though, he knew he would have to throw himself into English.
So since March he has been concentrating on the language, spending most of his free time studying. In March, he will enroll at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, and plans to major in Chinese.
For the past two months he has been meeting Whitten about once a week for tutoring, but as with Julia and Mercier, the lessons tend to be informal. Whitten, a 24-year-old who teaches English to adults for a living, is mightily impressed by Seong-ho’s dedication.
“To be honest he’s much more passionate than the average South Korean student by far,” Whitten said. “He has a fantastic vocabulary but all self-taught. He’s very, very anxious to improve.”
It was Seong-ho’s sister, who shares a home in Seoul with him and his mother, who introduced him to the PSCORE program. One day, should the two Koreas unite, he hopes he can use his own language skills to help with the transition. For the time being, though, he’s just enjoying his good fortune and working to show his appreciation.
“PSCORE members are really helpful,” he said. “I’m really happy because I didn’t expect this sort of situation.
“I have to learn hard, to work very hard.”
To learn more about PSCORE or become a volunteer, visit pscore.org (Korean), Pscore.com or the Pscore Korea Facebook page.
By Rob York (firstname.lastname@example.org
)Julia and Seong-ho requested that their real names not be used for this article. ― Ed.