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Five Years in South Korea
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2016-01-25 17:54:39
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Five Years in South Korea


          Nan-Ih BYEON (Born in 1980)

           Arrived in South Korea in May 21st, 2005



In the early 1990s, there were severe food shortages in North Korea. The rampant starvation and struggle to survive forced me to leave. In 1997, I escaped from North Korea. I was then pursued by authorities for five years in China. Fortunately, with assistance from the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR), I could come to South Korea passing through a third country.


On May 25, 2002, I arrived in South Korea. I was very confused yet joyful during my first moments at Incheon Airport. Even though I speak the same language as my Southern counterparts, I felt weak when I thought about having to live by myself in a country where I knew no one. With this fragile outlook, I stayed at Hanawon for two months and received an education to assimilate with my new environment.


On August 6, 2002, I left Hanawon. My insecurity subsided as I learned more about South Korea and grew accustomed to my new community. I finally had the chance to start a new life in South Korea, an opportunity that I have been longing to realize.


Language Barrier


Adjusting to life in South Korea was not as easy as I had expected. I had a lot of difficulties but the toughest challenge was the language barrier. South Korea uses a lot of foreign words so I struggled to understand even the most basic conversations. I naturally became withdrawn as a result. I also felt afraid that Southerners would isolate me because of my accent and notice that I am from North Korea. The fear led me to close my mind to others.


While I was working at a pet salon, the pet stylist jargon is filled with foreign words so I struggled to familiarize myself with the new vocabulary. The fact that customers and co-workers could not understand me as well further complicated the situation. I felt so empty when someone asked me, ”Are you from China?” The meaning was the same but the delivery was slightly different so we could not understand each other.


One day a customer asked me something and I answered “Il eopseupnida.” The customer’s face turned red with frustration. I knew that ”Il eopseupnida” meant ”nothing to care about” in South Korea but I became accustomed to using it to mean ”it’s ok.” I just replied without thinking. I felt the language barrier was insurmountable and I did not want to talk anymore. After a few days, I became more reserved and simply said “hello” to customers.


Crossroads of Choice


When I was at Hanawon, I heard that getting job in South Korea was difficult even for people with graduate degrees, so I doubted my ability to secure employment because of my late academic start. Moreover, I hid in China after I left North Korea so I had no chance to continue my studies. I was afraid to start again after five years spent not studying. I thought four years in college would be a waste of time. I then decided to obtain a professional license.


After I left Hanawon, I attended a pet stylist institute for a year and received a second grade license. When I got the license, my attitude changed to “if I try it, I can do it.” I felt a boost in my confidence to try new things.


I was so happy with my second grade pet stylist license. I then received a call from the NKHR inquiring about my ability to work because they were looking to hire a saeteomin (North Korean defector). After the call, I immediately decided to work at the NKHR as my first job in South Korea. I felt so happy with work at the NKHR.


As I worked, I realized that I needed additional schooling to overcome some of the limitations I faced. I then decided to attend college. I researched various schools but deciding upon a major was difficult. Most saeteomins go to prestigious colleges and major in economic-related fields. Many adjusted well to the new situations but there were also many that had a difficult time adjusting so I took my time to decide my major.


In choosing my major, I considered the subjects that I liked and what I wanted to study. When I was in China, an old lady who took care of me coordinated a nursing home. While I was staying with her, I helped the old lady and the nursing home residents. The work was not difficult and I felt a sense of worth there. At that time, I thought my assistance was marginal, but after I arrived in South Korea, I realized what social welfare was. There was a similar subject it college to study and I believe this is what I want to pursue.


A Choice Without Regret


I knew that I needed to take responsibility for my life and study. The life as a college student was more difficult than I had expected. Most of the difficulty came from financial problems. Textbooks, transportation, food and leisure expenses added up to a lot. I am in my 20s so I want to look pretty but I had to limit my spending because of money.


Even though the Korean government provides financial support, it is not enough. I attended work experience programs during the week, worked part-time during the weekend and studied at night. Even the wages from my part-time job was not enough so I had to reduce my food and transportation expenses. It takes two hours to get to school so I get home after midnight when school finishes at 10:30 pm. I stayed up many nights to study.


The most difficult subject for me was English. At the beginning of the first semester, I did not know alphabet so I struggled to follow the teacher. I just stared blankly at her face. If I had an exam, the first thing I did was memorize spelling. After two yeas, the academic load became easier and I feel more confident now. Even though I faced my difficulties studying, I am so glad to have met such nice friends. I met my friends at the school orientation. I also enjoy the freedom to study what I want to learn.


I do not consider myself an easy going person and I struggle to get along with people. I also do not talk about myself that much. At the orientation, other students took notice of my different accent and asked, “Are you from Kangwon province?” I just replied that I was. I felt bad because I was lying but I wanted to keep this secret until I became real friends with the other students.


After a few days in a human behavior and social environment class, the professor created several teams and sat us in a circle. The professor then instructed us to share the saddest and happiest moments in our lives with our team members. I was so upset because I knew I should tell my story as a North Korean. I just could not lie so I felt bad that I had been lying to my friends all this time. I worried about how my friends would treat me. Would they ostracize me? Right after class I apologized to my friends. Surprisingly, they thought nothing negative about the truth and even treated me better after learning of my situation. I felt so sorry that I could not open my mind in the first place.


During the first two years in college, there were some difficult situations. However, the sense of achievement made me feel proud of myself. At the beginning of my third year, I received news that my brother had passed away. My body and soul became very weak. Whenever I felt overwhelmed, I wanted to give up. I knew starting over would be much more difficult so I persevered. My friends also helped me to stay focused. I felt I just started school but then realized that I would be graduated soon. School was my choice and I felt that I chose the right major for me. Four years was normally a short period of time but for me it was quite long because I had to address all of my problems by myself in new environment. If I did not pursue the major I liked, what would happen to me? I sometimes reflect on this scenario.


I want to tell North Korean youth not to be obsessed with the school name or major. Of course, gaining admission into a prestigious school is great but that is not the main objective. I think studying in college is a process to become a better person. Spending a lot of time to follow a curriculum that is too difficult is no use if students give up studying. Also, obtaining part-time employment is important to get money as a short-term solution but I recommend finding a job related to a student’s major.


Finding a job was my biggest concern just like every other college student who has a few days before graduation. It was unsettling to hear the discrimination against North Koreans and the preference for South Koreans. I did my best in college and I think I’m ready to prove my worth as a contributing member of society. However, I have my doubts that I might be discriminated against because of my North Korean origin. I worry that these fears will hinder my ability to interview or take exams.


A Series of Misfortunes


I felt misfortunate and had lots of complaints because I had to leave my hometown when I was 17 years old. I left everything including my family. I was very scared at having to live alone. Even though I received a lot of assistance from generous people, these individuals are no comparison to my parents. I miss the family that I left in North Korea. I was angry about the news of my brothers in which one was executed and another had suffered a fatal accident when I was in China.


Whenever I think of my second brother who had his life cut short, I still cry for him. He only thought about work and family, and did his best to make ends meet. He had worked at a gas station for a long time and one day he came to Seoul to work as laborer. After his first 10 days of work he got into an accident.  After work, he was releasing his belt and coming down to the ground, when he fell down from the sixth floor. There was safety net but it did not help.


My brother’s case is now on trial but according to lawyer, it will be very difficult to get receive any damages. According to law, the first beneficiaries of financial damages would be my parents while the second beneficiary would be his wife. Since these individuals reside in North Korea, it will be impossible to prove their existence and residence.


I asked for confirmation of my family in North Korea by the Ministry of National Unification. I received a response and a document about the remainder of my family in South Korea. I went again and asked my sister-in-law and parents to stay in North Korea. I needed the confirmation document and was told that my family could not substantiate their residence in North Korea or China. I was subsequently advised that I would not receive an official document.


The laws related to North Korean defectors are still fairly new. My family’s case is first instance so it will be challenging to overcome. I understand the situation. The Ministry of National Unification is supposed to be active with the problems of North Korean defectors but responded without any attention to my case. I felt so sad and neglected.


These continuous difficulties made me feel unfortunate but there were many helpful individuals who guided me through these issues. I now believe that I am the most fortunate person in the world. I arrived in Korea with God’s grace. I can do things that I want to do without any restraint. I feel so happy about these freedoms. I am so grateful of the many generous people around me. I can now face the difficulties with happiness and hope. Once I overcome these obstacles, I have no other fears and feel more mature.


I can live a positive life because of my generous neighbors and the nice people that I have met. My goal is to become a social worker. After I graduate from college next year, I want to work in the welfare field treating the elderly. Until now, I was not a giver. I always received from other but I now want to contribute so that I can share what I have received from others. I will keep trying to achieve my goal.




· Translated by Seon-Shim Yi and David Koo