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Are North Koreans different?

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By Casey Lartigue Jr.

Trolls are a fact of life on the internet. Some newspapers, blogs and websites even freeze their comments sections because of disgruntled people targeting them and their readers.

As crude and rude as internet trolls are, even some of them take it easy when they learn that someone has suffered, such as victims of sexual assault or domestic violence.

I would like to suggest that internet trolls also take it easy on North Korean refugees who have overcome a lot. I have seen many of them break down as they discuss things that happened to them or their family members in North Korea or China, and many struggle with PTSD years after escaping to freedom. South Korea is number one among developed countries in its suicide rate; North Korean refugee rates are supposedly even higher.

Last year, I did some YouTube interviews with North Korean refugee Eunhee Park. She mentioned she often got punished in North Korea for the way she dressed, and that fashion was a way for her to express herself her individuality and learning. Dressing how she wanted in freedom motivated her to escape (that's my characterization). Some South Koreans harshly criticized her for this opinion and said fashion was a frivolous reason to escape to freedom (as if they know what's an appropriate reason to escape from a totalitarian regime).

Eunhee considers me to be a mentor so I responded with some old uncle-like feedback. In North Korea, criticism is a threat because people can have you arrested for what you do or say. In the mostly free world outside of North Korea, people can gossip, spread rumors, distort facts and even lie about you on YouTube videos, blogs or SNS. However, it is very difficult for them to have you arrested for something you say.

My exchanges with Eunhee had me wondering: could there be context to North Korea that makes North Korean refugees more uncomfortable than others about criticism?

Han Song-mi, co-author with me of the book, "Greenlight to Freedom," says in her memoir that she dreaded weekly mandatory self-criticism sessions in North Korea even more than being forced to watch public executions.

She explained that the occasional public executions were traumatic. She had nightmares and couldn't sleep for weeks after witnessing them.

On the other hand, the self-criticism sessions she was forced to attend were even more troubling. Typically, about 30 North Koreans in her area were forced to gather every Monday evening to criticize themselves and each other. She says that her mind was never at ease during the week because she had to think bad things about herself and her neighbors.

They were at risk of confessing something that could get them punished or spied on. They grew up with criticism, had their self-esteem destroyed by a cruel dictatorship determined to keep them servile, and are put in no-win situations that developed North Korea into a low-trust society. Getting out of North Korea can be liberating, but there are plenty of people ready to punch them in the face online with often childish busybody attacks that may have them recalling their days in North Korea.

A few years ago, some internet trolls and sympathizers of North Korea began negative chatter about North Korean refugees having cosmetic surgery. I talked with some North Korean refugees about it. Universally, whether they had surgery done or not, they responded, "Why should it matter to others? Isn't this a free country?" I explained that people are free to gossip about the personal choices of others, and they often do so, especially when they are unsatisfied with their own lives.

Some North Korean refugees explained that, for the first time in their lives, they controlled their own heads and bodies. People who grew up in freedom might not understand that feeling of individual control. Another North Korean refugee said that the North Korean government strips individuality away from North Koreans. In freedom, she felt free to experiment, to change her hair style or color, and even to have plastic surgery.

A male North Korean refugee said he had cosmetic surgery for problems dating back to his days in the North Korean military. A former member of North Korea's elite said that he and some other former North Koreans seek to hide their identities. Another North Korean refugee woman said she can't afford cosmetic surgery but would do so because of her low self-esteem. Some people have knee-jerk responses about anyone having cosmetic surgery, but could there be a different context for North Korean refugees?

Recognizing that some are quick to misunderstand, I will be clear that people have the right to analyze others critically. They may not realize when they target North Korean refugees that there is a history and context of North Korea that may make them more sensitive to criticism.

Casey Lartigue Jr. is co-author along with Songmi Han of the book, "Greenlight to Freedom," and co-founder along with Eunkoo Lee of Freedom Speakers International (FSI).


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