“How has your life changed since you fled North Korea to come to Seoul?” I asked the refugee that stood before us, whom I’ll refer to as Joon. By outward appearances, Joon had assimilated well into South Korea having just arrived three months ago. Her hair was dyed an eccentric shade of orange, and she was fully decked out in colourful modern clothes. With her hands folded neatly together, she explained. 

“I can have any job I want here. I can choose where I want to work and make money” our guide translated on her behalf. On a tour to the North Korean de-militarized zone (DMZ) with three friends, we were granted the opportunity to ask a North Korean defector any questions we had. 

We learnt that Joon had worked on a farm in North Korea. She was not paid for her labour, and only earned money on what she sold in the marketplace. She was also in the military for six years. The government claims this is voluntary, though if you ask a North Korean they will swiftly explain this is not the case.

Allegedly, all North Koreans must be enrolled for 3-5 years, though I recently read that the timeframe will be extended to 10 due to waning troop numbers. This is somewhat surprising given that North Korea already has the 4th largest army on earth. Joon was somehow involved in coding, though she not be further specific for security purposes.

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South Korean soldiers march against the mountainous backdrop of North Korea

“Did you leave with any family, or are your family still back in North Korea?” we queried.

Without change of expression, Joon described that she had fled in secrecy with only her baby in tow. Her husband and extended family members remained behind and she still has no contact with them. If she were to try and attempt communications, both parties could be prosecuted.

“How did you physically cross the border and escape from North Korea?” one of our friends asked.

Our guide paused a moment, nodding as Joon spoke then replicated her words.

“Through China. She says about 99% of people escape North Korea through China, only about 1% make it through the South”. Joon had gone through the Northern Korea/China border where patrol officers are bribed with money and cigarettes. It is also a major trading point between the two nations. “There is so much movement between the borders, they cannot check them all”, our guide explained, presumably referring to freight cars. 

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A war-time train stands in its final resting place, ridden with thousands of bullet holes at the Freedom Bridge

After crossing through China Joon then flew to Thailand, an increasingly common route as North Korean refugees are welcomed there. Joon stayed at a North Korean asylum centre there, allowing her to work and further save funds to continue on to South Korea. Her few and simple sentences could never capture what was undoubtedly a terrifying experience.

“And the cost, how much did she have to pay to cross the China border?” we wondered.

Our guide thought a moment to scribble Joon’s answer in Korean, then convert the sum to US dollars.

“Three thousand US dollars. One thousand US dollars for herself, and two thousand US dollars for her baby”. One can pay some of the funds to border officers but the full amount must eventually be paid via brokers, or refugees risk being reported and sent back.

I asked how many people in this seemingly zip-locked nation were aware of the outside world, or the possibility of fleeing.

“Probably 80% of people in North Korea are aware of the outside world and know that they can escape,” our guide described Joon’s response. However, even discussions of such plans can lead someone to report potential defectors, which has terrifying risks in itself such as imprisonment in the country’s notorious prison camps.

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Freedom Bridge in South Korea

“Also,” our guide added, “there is more and more access to newspapers from the outside, but it is kept secret”. Indeed, the face of modern North Koreans is changing. The growing ability for relatives to smuggle money and media via brokers in China has allowed North Koreans to become wealthier and connect with the outside world.

The Japan Times recently wrote about the growing affluence and global awareness of modern refugees. Though malnutrition and preventable death are still widespread across the country, a growing number of escapees like Joon are not starved upon leaving, but are seeking a free and better life.

At some point, a friend in the group asked something that crossed all of our minds since meeting Joon at the beginning of our tour.

“Why do you do these tours? Wouldn’t it be traumatic to be recounting these events all the time?”.

Joon slowly nodded her head in understanding upon translation of the question. Her response was quick and confident.

“I want to spread awareness about the human rights abuse happening in North Korea”.

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Flags and messages of hope to North Koreans flutter in the wind on the North/South Korea barricade at the Freedom Bridge

“Do you feel supported and welcomed here in Seoul by South Koreans?” I asked. I was curious, given that refugees are commonly resented in both developed and developing nations.

Joon’s response was basic, re-emphasising that it was easy to get a job and that she felt welcomed here. I wondered if she was comfortable to state otherwise.

Sharing her own viewpoint, our guide explained that some South Koreans complain about the abundant tax dollars that go towards employment and housing for defectors. “But a mentality of sharing is needed if we are to unify countries,” she emphasised passionately.

I was shocked to hear from our guide that some South Koreans even find it insulting that refugees deflect their own government and abandon their family. Reading further on this, I found an insightful excerpt in TIME magazine:

“Outside South Korea, I think people assume North Korea is at the top of the agenda.

If you live in Seoul, or if you live in Pusan, you go to work in the morning, come home at night, you see your family and you go to the shops on the weekend — you are living a normal life, and North Korea is just not part of that. You are concerned about education, your children, if you have them, about how much salary you get, the ordinary stuff that people in Canada or Brazil worry about.” – Daniel Tudor, in an interview by TIME

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Downtown Seoul

I had about a thousand more questions to ask Joon, but the Japanese portion of our group was waiting patiently as we fired one query after the next. Wrapping up, a friend asked:

“Since Kim Jong-il has passed away and Kim Jong-un has taken over, what has changed? Is the new leader perceived by North Koreans as better?”

Joon nodded upon understanding the question. “In some ways, yes. Education has gotten better, now kids can go to school. Before, children had to be pulled from school to work”. Our guide added, “Child refugees of 10 years old would come to South Korea and not even be able to write their name”. Continuing her translation she described, “But before, the other leader Kim Jong-il would say, ‘You can flee my country, I don’t care’. So people did. But now with the new leader, he hunts down everyone who tries, he says to them, ‘I will search until the ends of the earth’ to find you”.

Those final words were chilling. Joon stood tall in her cotton candy pink wool coat clutching an enormous plastic iPhone case.

“Kamsahhamnida” we bowed and thanked her in unison as we made our way out of the room. It seemed too brief an expression of our gratitude, and I hoped she knew the impact her sharing would have on so many people doing this tour.

Though it disturbs me that only via firsthand words of a refugee could I really feel the impact of the issues going on just hours from where we travelled. I am continually grateful to have been born in a free and developed nation, and after being reminded of the realities of the alternate, I hope to never, ever forget the freedom that I have.

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Seoul City skyline


Note: you can read about our physical crossing into North Korea and the rest of our DMZ tour here. To learn how to book a North Korean DMZ tour, check out our how-to guide here.