SEOUL — When waves of North Koreans began arriving in the South during a devastating famine 20 years ago, many encountered a world that might as well have been on another planet.
They had to learn to use credit cards and smartphones, to withstand the noise and the bustle and the neon lights, to hold down jobs that actually required them to show up. They had to cope with disparaging remarks or insistent queries when South Koreans heard their accents or marveled if they couldn’t use a computer.
But many of the young men and women coming out of the North today? They’re thriving.
Entrepreneurial spirit, artistic expression and a will to compete are blossoming as they move abruptly from a country dedicated to a brutally enforced totalitarian personality cult to the tumult of South Korean capitalism.
And even as they lose their northern accents and embrace southern fashions, they don’t hide their roots.
“I’m proud of the fact that I’m North Korean. It’s a big part of my identity,” said Park Su-hyang, a 27-year-old who helped found Woorion, a network that helps escapees settle in the South, one of a crop of video bloggers trying to change stereotypes.
“We often think of refugees as victims, and North Koreans, as they adjust to a very different society in South Korea, inevitably do face challenges,” said Sokeel Park, South Korea country director for Liberty in North Korea, an organization that helps escapees from the North. “But in my work with hundreds of North Koreans who have settled here, I’ve been very impressed not just with their resilience but also with their creativity and ambition and their spirit for really making the most of their lives.”
These young and determined people, activists say, will be the ones who bridge the gap between the two Koreas if the countries are reunified. They are the test lab for reunification.
Here are the stories of five young people who made the perilous escape from North Korea and have found their feet in South Korea. Their remarks have been edited for clarity.
My dad was a sailor, and he had alcohol problems, but still, I had a happy childhood. I used to swim in the sea every morning and every afternoon after school. My forehead was always white because of the salt from the sea.
But then my mom left and my father was killed in a traffic accident, and my sister, who is 11 years younger than me, went to live with our grandma. I was living by myself in our family house. Then in 2009, I escaped, too.
In North Korea, I had read only one novel, which I’d borrowed from a neighbor. It was all torn and there were pages missing, but it was all I had. In South Korea, I was always reading. At college, I discovered a wonderful Korean literature professor whose way of teaching was very emotional, and I ended up taking three classes with him.
The whole time, I was writing down little notes in my phone. I didn’t even know that the notes I was writing were poetry. I was just scribbling spontaneously.
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