North Korean defectors: 'Please, don't ask me about…' - Korea Times
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North Korean defectors: 'Please, don't ask me about…'

Nahyun, female, escaped North Korea in 2004, arrived in South Korea in 2006.

Sometimes, it seems that North Korean TV programming has a special channel here. There is so much talk about the leaders of North Korea. I'm really tired of hearing about them. I have never started a conversation with anyone about the Kim family ruling North Korea, but people constantly ask me about them. It was propaganda all of the time when I was in North Korea, and it seems that North Korea has successfully hired South Korean media to report constantly on its leaders.

I escaped that place, I'm sick of hearing about the leaders of North Korea, I turn off the TV when I see any of their faces. Even when I was in North Korea, my father would curse them all, so I may have learned from him. The worst thing is when people try to judge me based on them. They are dictators, I had nothing to do with them, I would have never met them except as a slave.

I hope people will wait for North Korean refugees to start conversations about the Kims before asking about them. There is a difference between a North Korean refugee who has just arrived, and a North Korean refugee who has been here for years. It is important to get to know them as individuals, not just charge in with questions about dictators and nuclear bombs. Some newcomers may be ready to talk about what happened to them, some others may want to close that door to North Korea. Some who have been here a long time may have great perspective about things and be able to come compare their experiences with that of North Korea, and some others may get tired of answering many of the same questions.

Mee-jung, female, escaped North Korea in 2016, arrived in South Korea in 2016.

I understand that people are curious about North Koreans, but I hate it when people ask me if all North Koreans are poor. I'm not complaining, I know the media wants South Koreans and other people to have sympathy for North Koreans, but it seems the main strategy to do it is to make North Koreans look so pathetic. We were born in a country with a terrible government, but it doesn't mean there is anything wrong with the people.

I am so happy to see North Korean refugees who speak out on the internal stage. They are so brave, I really respect them. They get all kinds of questions and attacks, but they continue speaking out. In my case, I don't have patience every time there is an anniversary about North Korea or a holiday here that people are asking me, "So what's that like in North Korea." I'm not interested in discussing it, but thank you to those North Korean refugees who are willing to answer all of those questions.

Cheol Jun, male, escaped North Korea in 2007, arrived in South Korea in 2012.

I have now lived in three different countries and had different experiences in each one. When I was in China, I forgot about being from North Korea. It wasn't something to talk about, and the few people who knew it never asked me deeper questions.

When I was in the Philippines, people would ask about which part of Korea I was from, they wanted to ask about things they saw in the news about both Koreas. They would ask about strange things from North Korea they had read in the news.

In South Korea, people want to know about cultural and entertainment things. But here in South Korea, people want to define and categorize me based on where I am from. Instead of getting to learn about me, but once they learn I am from North Korea, then that becomes the main discussion topic, asking me about things in the news, and I can always expect to hear strange stories. When I was in high school, people weren't asking so many questions, they didn't really care about me being from North Korea.

Once I got to college, it seemed that people were examining me like I was a zoo animal or a laboratory specimen. That could be the experience of everyone in the college setting, but being from North Korea added an extra layer for me. At times, I lost confidence, constantly feeling examined, feeling categorized as a pathetic North Korean, not feeling that people got to know me as a human being.

Huyk, male, escaped North Korea in 2012, arrived in South Korea in 2012.

Now, I'm okay now about questions about North Korea, so many people are so curious. At first when I arrived in South Korea, I hated any questions about North Korea. I wanted to get away from North Korea. My mind had been controlled for so long, I didn't want to even think about North Korea. I was trying to adjust to being here, not teaching seminars about North Korea to anyone curious about it.

The difficult thing is that even though people seemed to know some things about North Korea, it seemed they had no context. This crazy story, that crazy story, nuclear bombs, clothing or hair style of the Kim family. Even when I had answers to questions, it seemed they didn't fit into the expectations of people who were fascinated with the strange things about North Korea.

Kyung-ook, female, escaped North Korea in 2015, arrived in South Korea in 2015.

I don't often talk about being from North Korea and only a few of my closest friends know it. I can't say that I am bothered by any questions, my closest friends don't ask about it, they accept me as a friend first. When I am with friends or classmates who don't know I am from North Korea, they will laugh at and mock North Korean things, such as the music, accent or images they see. Sometimes I think about telling them that I am from North Korea, but that might cause new problems. I guess what bothers me is that they are so quick to judge North Koreans based on the government and leaders.

Eunji, female, escaped North Korea in 2017, arrived in South Korea in 2018.

Thanks for asking me about this. There are three main questions that bother me. One: "Where are you from?" When I answer the questions, I feel like a loser. Everything I see in the news about North Korea here makes it seem like it is an abnormal country and the people are robots who can't think. I'm still adjusting to being here, I still have a North Korean accent, and people can sense it.

The questions feel judgmental, when they hear my accent, look at me suspiciously, and then ask, "Where are you from?" I'm okay with answering, but I am careful because the judgmental questions come after that about the third question: What happened to my family in North Korea. People want to know every detail about my family. I wish people would be slower in asking about the families of North Korean refugees. There are many uncomfortable things about it, but it just seems like a checklist item for people asking questions.

Gun-mo, male, escaped North Korea in 2009, arrived in South Korea in 2010.

I hate it when people ask me what I miss about North Korea. Of course, I miss my hometown and friends. But I escaped from that place, had so many terrible things happen to family members and friends. It seems to be an innocent question for people asking, and I think they don't mean anything bad, but for North Koreans, there are so many emotional things wrapped up in that question.

When it feels judgmental, with people who don't have an understanding about North Korea and what North Koreans go through to arrive here, then I really hate hearing it. It feels like I am at a nice birthday party, and someone starts asking me to talk about being tortured or to explain bad things that happened to family members. I have arrived in South Korea, I am trying to make a good life here, but people want me to talk about torture in North Korea and if anything bad happened to my family.


Casey Lartigue Jr., co-founder of the Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center, was the 2017 winner of the "Social Contribution" Prize from the Hansarang Rural Cultural Foundation and the winner of the Global Award from Challenge Korea 2017. TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee translated the remarks of refugees from Korean to English.


Nahyun, female, escaped North Korea in 2004, arrived in South Korea in 2006.

Sometimes, it seems that North Korean TV programming has a special channel here. There is so much talk about the leaders of North Korea. I'm really tired of hearing about them. I have never started a conversation with anyone about the Kim family ruling North Korea, but people constantly ask me about them. It was propaganda all of the time when I was in North Korea, and it seems that North Korea has successfully hired South Korean media to report constantly on its leaders.

I escaped that place, I'm sick of hearing about the leaders of North Korea, I turn off the TV when I see any of their faces. Even when I was in North Korea, my father would curse them all, so I may have learned from him. The worst thing is when people try to judge me based on them. They are dictators, I had nothing to do with them, I would have never met them except as a slave.

I hope people will wait for North Korean refugees to start conversations about the Kims before asking about them. There is a difference between a North Korean refugee who has just arrived, and a North Korean refugee who has been here for years. It is important to get to know them as individuals, not just charge in with questions about dictators and nuclear bombs. Some newcomers may be ready to talk about what happened to them, some others may want to close that door to North Korea. Some who have been here a long time may have great perspective about things and be able to come compare their experiences with that of North Korea, and some others may get tired of answering many of the same questions.

Mee-jung, female, escaped North Korea in 2016, arrived in South Korea in 2016.

I understand that people are curious about North Koreans, but I hate it when people ask me if all North Koreans are poor. I'm not complaining, I know the media wants South Koreans and other people to have sympathy for North Koreans, but it seems the main strategy to do it is to make North Koreans look so pathetic. We were born in a country with a terrible government, but it doesn't mean there is anything wrong with the people.

I am so happy to see North Korean refugees who speak out on the internal stage. They are so brave, I really respect them. They get all kinds of questions and attacks, but they continue speaking out. In my case, I don't have patience every time there is an anniversary about North Korea or a holiday here that people are asking me, "So what's that like in North Korea." I'm not interested in discussing it, but thank you to those North Korean refugees who are willing to answer all of those questions.

Cheol Jun, male, escaped North Korea in 2007, arrived in South Korea in 2012.

I have now lived in three different countries and had different experiences in each one. When I was in China, I forgot about being from North Korea. It wasn't something to talk about, and the few people who knew it never asked me deeper questions.

When I was in the Philippines, people would ask about which part of Korea I was from, they wanted to ask about things they saw in the news about both Koreas. They would ask about strange things from North Korea they had read in the news.

In South Korea, people want to know about cultural and entertainment things. But here in South Korea, people want to define and categorize me based on where I am from. Instead of getting to learn about me, but once they learn I am from North Korea, then that becomes the main discussion topic, asking me about things in the news, and I can always expect to hear strange stories. When I was in high school, people weren't asking so many questions, they didn't really care about me being from North Korea.

Once I got to college, it seemed that people were examining me like I was a zoo animal or a laboratory specimen. That could be the experience of everyone in the college setting, but being from North Korea added an extra layer for me. At times, I lost confidence, constantly feeling examined, feeling categorized as a pathetic North Korean, not feeling that people got to know me as a human being.

Huyk, male, escaped North Korea in 2012, arrived in South Korea in 2012.

Now, I'm okay now about questions about North Korea, so many people are so curious. At first when I arrived in South Korea, I hated any questions about North Korea. I wanted to get away from North Korea. My mind had been controlled for so long, I didn't want to even think about North Korea. I was trying to adjust to being here, not teaching seminars about North Korea to anyone curious about it.

The difficult thing is that even though people seemed to know some things about North Korea, it seemed they had no context. This crazy story, that crazy story, nuclear bombs, clothing or hair style of the Kim family. Even when I had answers to questions, it seemed they didn't fit into the expectations of people who were fascinated with the strange things about North Korea.

Kyung-ook, female, escaped North Korea in 2015, arrived in South Korea in 2015.

I don't often talk about being from North Korea and only a few of my closest friends know it. I can't say that I am bothered by any questions, my closest friends don't ask about it, they accept me as a friend first. When I am with friends or classmates who don't know I am from North Korea, they will laugh at and mock North Korean things, such as the music, accent or images they see. Sometimes I think about telling them that I am from North Korea, but that might cause new problems. I guess what bothers me is that they are so quick to judge North Koreans based on the government and leaders.

Eunji, female, escaped North Korea in 2017, arrived in South Korea in 2018.

Thanks for asking me about this. There are three main questions that bother me. One: "Where are you from?" When I answer the questions, I feel like a loser. Everything I see in the news about North Korea here makes it seem like it is an abnormal country and the people are robots who can't think. I'm still adjusting to being here, I still have a North Korean accent, and people can sense it.

The questions feel judgmental, when they hear my accent, look at me suspiciously, and then ask, "Where are you from?" I'm okay with answering, but I am careful because the judgmental questions come after that about the third question: What happened to my family in North Korea. People want to know every detail about my family. I wish people would be slower in asking about the families of North Korean refugees. There are many uncomfortable things about it, but it just seems like a checklist item for people asking questions.

Gun-mo, male, escaped North Korea in 2009, arrived in South Korea in 2010.

I hate it when people ask me what I miss about North Korea. Of course, I miss my hometown and friends. But I escaped from that place, had so many terrible things happen to family members and friends. It seems to be an innocent question for people asking, and I think they don't mean anything bad, but for North Koreans, there are so many emotional things wrapped up in that question.

When it feels judgmental, with people who don't have an understanding about North Korea and what North Koreans go through to arrive here, then I really hate hearing it. It feels like I am at a nice birthday party, and someone starts asking me to talk about being tortured or to explain bad things that happened to family members. I have arrived in South Korea, I am trying to make a good life here, but people want me to talk about torture in North Korea and if anything bad happened to my family.


Casey Lartigue Jr., co-founder of the Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center, was the 2017 winner of the "Social Contribution" Prize from the Hansarang Rural Cultural Foundation and the winner of the Global Award from Challenge Korea 2017. TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee translated the remarks of refugees from Korean to English.



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