Living under the beady eye of an oppressive tyrannical dictatorship would sound like hell on Earth to many, but to a few North Koreans who managed to escape the country that place wasn’t a dystopian nightmare, it was home.
According to the Associated Press every year, thousands of North Koreans leave their homeland risking imprisonment or worse, with the hopes of reaching South Korea.
Unfortunately, these desperate refugees often find themselves lost in the nation, struggling with depression, discrimination, joblessness and their own lingering pride in the nation they left behind. And shockingly surveys have shown that up to one-third would return home if they could.
One middle aged man who spoke to AP on the condition of anonymity described his former life as a policeman in the North.
In North Korea, people were afraid of me. They knew I could just drag them away.
This meant he could live a reasonably good life in the isolated state, extorting bribes and money from locals, keeping himself fed and entertained while many others starved.
Eventually though the incessant misery got to him and using his connections he managed to get a smuggler to show him where to slip across a river and into China, making his way to South Korea.
Now the former policeman, is an increasingly bitter day labourer who supports his family by hauling bags of cement through Seoul’s constantly under construction apartment blocks, and he isn’t sure he made the right decision.
Sometimes, when my work is too hard, I think about my job as a policeman. I didn’t have problems with money back then. I ate what I wanted to eat.There are times when I regret it a lot.
I knew that South Korea was a capitalist country, that it was very rich. I thought that if I can just get there, I can work less but earn a lot of money.
Apparently there are more than 27,000 North Korean exiles live in the South, most arriving since a famine which tore apart the country in the mid-1990s.
Many Northerners are drawn to the South, believing the capitalist dream of unlimited wealth for little work. What they really find is they’ve moved to one of the most competitive countries in the world, where education is worshipped and a drive for perfection has produced one of the world’s highest rates of plastic surgery.
Hong Yong-pyo, South Korea’s minister of unification, recently made a speech to a group of defectors.
Life in South Korea is competitive… For you to succeed in this competition, you need to push yourself on your own.
However for many of the defectors that can be very difficult because although the government has schemes for Northerners, which include an immersive three-month program, along with help getting apartments and jobs, the exiles are immediately marked out by their accents and their confusion over the modern world.
Many Northerners are noticeably shorter than Southerners because of malnutrition, and the South sees height as a measure of attractiveness and success. When it comes to finding work they are often poorly educated and lack local contacts, which is often the key to getting hired in the South, and many South Koreans dismiss them as lazy and difficult.
As a result of the discrimination these refugees remain far less educated than many South Koreans and have far higher rates of unemployment. Shockingly their suicide rate is three times higher than the South Korean norm, and their most common profession is unskilled labourer.
Even success in the South doesn’t make life easier for Northern defectors.
Gae-yoon Lee, who was raised on a farm in North Korea left the country in 2010 with only a high school diploma. Now six years later, she’s a published poet who often writes about her childhood and the famine, and is midway through a degree in Korean literature at one of Seoul’s top universities.
But even she admitted to being intimidated by the South.
Even between friends, people are always competing here… It can be really stressful to live here.
There are times when I’m too afraid to be tagged as a North Korean… So when I’m talking to South Koreans, sometimes I’ll use a few English words that I remember so that people think that I’m a foreigner just learning to speak Korean. At that moment, I really want to be a foreigner.
It’s important to remember that while the West can sometimes treat the North Korea like a side show, real people suffer there everyday.