Monday, July 6

Escaping North Korea

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The other day I had lunch with a teacher who told me about a dinner she had with a group of North Korean refugees. Her daughter had met them through a church bulletin and invited them to meet the family. It was one of the very few times in the 9 months I've been here that anyone would talk openly with me about the situation with the North, so of course I seized the opportunity and asked her questions until I sensed her regret in ever bringing up the topic. She said that the people told her the only food that the government would provide were corn husks, and that though they themselves were farmers, this is all they ate. Any food they produced would be collected by the government. She also told me about their previous attempt at escape in which they'd been caught and thrown in prison, where they escaped again, this time successfully making their way across the northern border of the country, through China and eventually crossing the Yellow Sea to South Korea. My teacher was proud of the refugees, but also of her daughter, who she says is trying to learn to "become strong". She practices taekwondo as well, with the same goal in mind.

Unfortunately though, from what my teacher says, it's difficult to say how much less fucked life becomes for refugees when or if they actually make it to South Korea. The South Korean government gave the refugees she met a one-time 2 million won settlement allowance. But the Chinese merchant who helped them escape charged them 3 million won. To the hopeful refugees, I imagine this 1 million won debt is a minor inconvience. However, they soon discover that despite all they share, South Korea is a country in which North Koreans are largely regarded as second class citizens. Even the teacher I spoke to, who's progressive by any standard, but incredibly so for a Korean woman, says she found herself hesitant to bring North Koreans into her house. What would her family think? What would the other teachers at Sindang High say if they find out? South Korea is a country in which social laws trump political ones.

People here speak of uniting the Koreas "for the children", but in the time I've been here, this is the strongest argument I've heard for reunification. North Koreans are welcomed by the government; they're given a settlement allowance and they attend classes to help them assimilate to the way of life here - anti-propaganda propaganda - and they get jobs in factories making less money hourly than high school students in America make at McDonalds. Despite the open-door policy, as far as I can tell, North Koreans are not wanted.

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