On the Other Side
North Korean women have been escaping to the South in search of freedom and happier lives. But what happens when hope leads to disappointment?
Years ago in Yonsa, a small North Korean town near the Chinese border, residents gathered to watch a man die. Executioners tied him by his neck, chest, and waist to a log in the town square, then shot 90 bullets into him. When it was over, all that remained were two legs.
The man, an executive at a trading company, had been ratted out for illegally cutting down and selling trees to China. When the police came to his property, they found his ceiling papered with money and a getaway boat filled with wads of cash. Or so the story goes among locals.
But it was what became of this man’s daughter that haunted a 12-year-old Kim So Won*. The daughter was tall and beautiful and made small but daring fashion statements. “I remember she wore earrings and tight jeans,” says So Won, “and she wore a tight red jacket” — none of which was officially allowed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Rumors circulated that the girl could jump incredible distances, that she could fly across a room. “She was a star.”
Then one day, in 2007, not long after her father was publicly executed, the daughter vanished. No one ever saw or heard from her again. But So Won would always remember the earrings, the skinny jeans, the red jacket.
The view in every direction from So Won’s home in Yonsa was dominated by mountains dotted with potatoes in the autumn and strawberries in the spring. The range they called “the gasping mountain” barricaded Yonsa from the Tumen River; in some ways, it felt like a prison wall. Across that water was China and the rest of the world. Being so close to another life, in a way inland North Koreans were not, was the hardest part.
With two rooms and a plot of land for growing vegetables, the Kims’ home was spacious by North Korean standards. So Won lived with her middle sister, So Yeon, who was three years older, along with their mother and father, an engineer who later became the town drunk. “It was such a waste for him to live in North Korea,” So Won says. “He was always drinking to avoid reality.”
The reality was that North Korea’s system had long ago ceased to function: Its economy had stalled, its government was desperate, and its people were growing increasingly aware that their lives had changed for the worse. From 1945 — when the Korean Peninsula was split by the U.S. and the Soviet Union following the Japanese occupation — until the 1970s, North Korea was the richer of the two nations. The communist North enjoyed a better infrastructure and a stronger economy than the democratic South; some Koreans living abroad who had the choice of either country, including So Won’s grandfather who’d moved to Japan, opted to claim citizenship in the North.
But over the following decades, life in North Korea shifted drastically. The fall of the Soviet Union led to the collapse of the economy. A series of floods and droughts culminated in the Great Famine, or “arduous march,” as it was called, from 1994 to 1998. The famine — along with the regime’s human rights abuses, mismanagement of foreign aid, and funneling of money toward its nuclear program — starved and killed 330,000 North Koreans, according to conservative estimates.
The system, which had assigned citizens to state jobs and distributed coupons to buy food and other rations at state stores, started to crumble. A new class of workers emerged, often the women without official posts to report to who could discreetly find off-the-books employment. Women who lived in the northern reaches of the country sometimes crossed into China.
So Won’s eldest sister, nine years her senior, fled there to do odd jobs when So Won was a small child. Their mother worked there as a caretaker and sent her wages back home. Her time in China changed everything. “She couldn’t stop earning money,” So Won says. She had planned to stay for one month but ended up working for more than a year.
There is a saying on the Korean Peninsula that the greatest threat to the Joseon Rodongdang, North Korea’s ruling party, is the country’s other dang — the jangmadang, or black market.
Growing up, So Won and So Yeon lived out fantasies of better, more extravagant lives through whatever black-market goods they could afford. The country dictates everything from the propaganda posters hanging in people’s homes to the way they dress. For most North Korean women, the dress code is generally black trousers or skirts, never above the knee, and modest shirts. They are allowed to wear basic makeup (foundation, powder) and, recently, stud earrings. But they cannot drastically alter their hair, or style it too long or too short.
Mostly, So Won and So Yeon followed the rules and wore their school uniforms of dark pleated skirts with suspenders over plain white blouses. When they weren’t in class, they swapped their skirts for black pants, and for flair, they ran a hot iron over them until the creases were extra sharp, or tailored them to be slightly more fitted at the hips.
Every once in a while, the sisters would hear that a neighbor had gone to China and smuggled back kilos of used clothes. It was a frantic dash to that neighbor’s house, with buyers grabbing a pile, any pile, and paying for it before they could examine what it contained. So Won and her sister always hoped to find a red jacket and a pair of skinny jeans.
So Won did own a knockoff Adidas tracksuit and black jeans dyed so dark they almost didn’t look like denim at all. She had to be careful about where she wore them. Inspectors with scissors roamed the town cutting jeans, which were seen as a symbol of American imperialism. Spies were everywhere. So Won’s mother even suspected one of So Won’s friends of being an informant.
One day, So Yeon went to the black market to buy something she’d been saving up for. She and her sister had purchased perfumes and face creams before, but it was something even more special this time: eye makeup. When she sneaked back into the house, she caught So Won’s gaze. Come, come, come! She mouthed the words, her head motioning toward the other room. They hid behind a desk and removed the caps from the makeup stick. One end was a wand with bristles, the other a triangle of black coal. In hushed tones, they painted each other’s lashes and drew around each other’s eyes.
They turned their focus to the glittering eyeshadow, looking at it quizzically. What is this? What do we do with it? They weren’t sure, so they put it away unopened. Then they went outside to play around their house, where no one would see them.
The sisters also bought bootlegged movies and TV shows, which are seen as such an effective catalyst for defection that they’re often floated across the DMZ attached to balloons or bobbed across the sea in bottles. It was when 49-year-old Kang Mi Jin watched Promise, a South Korean action-romance, that she realized her government had lied to her all her life. She’d always been taught the South was impoverished, filled with beggars holding out tin cans. But not only was the country depicted as wealthy, the filmmakers could afford to destroy entire sets during fight scenes. She watched Promise eight times, enamored by the amount of money the male protagonist spent on winning his love interest’s heart. “It’s that movie that made me decide to escape,” she says.
So Won and So Yeon’s favorite movie was Dream of the Red Chamber, not because of the storyline about a wealthy Chinese family — “It was boring” — but because of the beautiful women dressed in even more beautiful clothing. So Won remembers animated films like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast for their “luxurious dresses,” and a movie called So Close for the female protagonist’s smart tailored pantsuit, glossy hair, and meticulously made-up face.
Sitting in their living room with the curtains drawn, they watched every scene, each more glamorous than the last. They marveled over the endless choice splashed across the screen. They admired the glint of jewelry, the sparkle of makeup. If they someday made it to South Korea, they thought, they’d have all those things.
After the Great Famine, people started fleeing to South Korea in greater numbers. The language used to describe those roughly 31,500 who have resettled in the South is politically complicated. In China, they are “economic migrants.” In the Republic of Korea, among most Koreans, both North and South, they’re talbukcha, or “person who escaped the North.” In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, no word exists.
A vast majority of talbukcha — Ministry of Unification figures say 71 percent overall and 83 percent in 2017 — are women. They often escape across the border into China and then make their way to Southeast Asia, where they can officially request protection at a South Korean Embassy. If caught in China or the communist countries of Laos and Vietnam, talbukcha are at risk of repatriation to North Korea, where they’ll face imprisonment, forced labor, torture, or execution. Few can successfully get to an embassy on their own. Some enlist the help of nonprofit or religious rescue groups. Others use brokers, who smuggle them for a fee of anywhere between $2,500 and $16,000.
On her last morning in North Korea, in 2009, So Won, then 14, woke up early, and she and her mother left home without saying a word, even to her father. The only person she said goodbye to was her sister, who had plans to escape later and meet them near Seoul. “I’ll see you soon,” So Won told her.
Two months later, after going through China and then Thailand (So Won’s mother paid brokers about $8,000), So Won sat in a sterile room at the South Korean National Intelligence Service in Seoul. She was quarantined, undergoing the routine interrogation to prove she wasn’t an enemy of the state. A man and a woman asked her all about her life in North Korea. Describe your house. Draw your hometown. Talk about your school. Be specific. Tell us more.
After the National Intelligence Service came the Hanawon Resettlement Center, the agency charged with handling the intake of North Korean defectors and giving them three months of mandatory citizen training before releasing them into society. They also assign North Koreans a city and accommodations, show them how to open a bank account, pay bills, shop for necessities, use public transit, go to school, and get a job. Talbukcha receive the equivalent of $6,200 in initial resettlement support paid in allotments (plus $11,700 to put toward the country’s expensive apartment down-payment requirements) and then a monthly living allowance of about $380 for the first six months.
After a 12-week course in democracy, capitalism, and the ultracompetitive South Korean lifestyle — along with a health screening and some vocational counseling — So Won and her mother were discharged from Hanawon. They were sent to Cheonan, a city about 50 miles south of Seoul, with a couple bags and a few thousand dollars to their name.
So Won’s first glimpses of South Korean consumerism came as an assault. Dongdaemun Market, in the heart of Seoul, was a crowded, chaotic scene. She worried she stuck out, that everyone could tell she was a talbukcha. Saleswomen shouted, their words a collection of flattened vowels; they pushed clothing and accessories at her and asked with what seemed like suspicion, “Are you Korean?”
At that time, So Won was chonseureopda, or “a country bumpkin,” she says. “Sometimes I can recognize defectors — like, ‘Oh, they came recently’ — by looking at their outfits. It’s something unnatural. It doesn’t match at all. Because North Korean people have no sense of fashion.”
Getting her hair done for the first time was its own form of humiliation. She’d dreamed of having long, silky locks, but she didn’t know where to go. She ended up walking into a cheap miyongshil, where an older woman straightened her strands with chemicals that damaged her hair. Buying makeup was even harder. She had no concept of what looked good on her. All she knew was that she wanted to copy Olympic figure skater Kim Yuna, even if it cost her about $20 to buy her signature fuchsia lipstick. After leaving the shop, So Won excitedly applied it, only to find it made her look sallow and garish. She never wore it again but was too ashamed to throw it away because it had cost a quarter of her monthly spending budget.
To blend into South Korean life, many women, like So Won, scramble to change their hair, their makeup, their clothing, their accents. “We want to look like ordinary South Koreans,” says So Won. Standing out as North Korean only invites prejudice. There is a widespread stereotype in South Korea that talbukcha are lazy, ignorant, prone to alcoholism, and a drain on the welfare state. North Koreans who move south are confronted by a people who are unfathomably foreign. The growing cultural and economic divides also mirror decreasing support for reunification. Older South Koreans remember a time when the two countries were one and treat peace talks with more optimism than their grandchildren. (A majority of the South Korean population viewed unification as necessary in 2017, but among those in their 20s, it’s just 38.9 percent.)
For Kim Ga Young, a 27-year-old North Korean student who moved to Seoul in 2013, the first step toward assimilation was to dye her hair caramel brown and buy new makeup. It was daunting. At the store, with a seemingly endless array of products all around her, she felt paralyzed. “I thought, If I can’t even pick one lipstick, how can I live here? ” Her friend opened a bottle of nail polish and, not knowing what it was, smeared it across her mouth.
“I thought I was never going to be pretty in South Korea,” says So Won. Still, she didn’t want to change anything about her face, even when South Koreans suggested double-eyelid surgery, a common procedure, or told her to remove the mole in the middle of her chin. “When I was in North Korea, I never thought I was ugly, but living here made me think I was ugly all the time.”
In the nearly nine years she’s been in the South, So Won has lost her North Korean accent. Through a nonprofit called Teach North Korean Refugees, she’s learned English, since the South has integrated English words into its language while the North has not. Mostly, she feels settled, yet: “I still feel something is missing.” That, of course, is the rest of her family. Last year, So Won heard from old neighbors that her father had died.
Because So Won feels divided by an “invisible wall” from her South Korean peers, she mostly sticks to her North Korean community. She has North Korean friends and a North Korean boyfriend. Many talbukcha like So Won end up moving from their placement cities to the greater Seoul area in neighborhoods where they can meet North Korean neighbors, join North Korean groups, and eat North Korean foods like injogogibap, a Great Famine invention of rice and artificial meat. So Won lives with her mother, who has had a harder time adjusting, as can be the case with older defectors. “Her mindset is still North Korean,” So Won says. She can’t seem to shake her North Korean accent, either.
Though South Korea can feel like an unaccepting place, So Won enjoys as much of it as she can for the sake of her sister. It was in her second year in South Korea that So Won realized her sister wouldn’t be joining her. She and her mother had been getting updates from So Yeon that she was leaving North Korea, was en route across China, was about to reach the border of Myanmar. But then the updates stopped. A few months later, she heard through her neighbors in Yonsa what had happened: So Yeon had been arrested, sent back, and sentenced to ten years in a political prison. No one has heard from her since.
So Won wonders what her sister is like today, if she’s even still alive, although she prefers not to think the worst. She’d rather imagine that her sister is largely unchanged, that she would want So Won to take advantage of every second of her freedom. That’s what So Won tells herself, at least, when her South Korean life feels so far from what they had imagined.
So Won is looking for a job now. She’s trying to find something in international relations, which she majored in. She can’t be sure, but she swears she noticed the conversation turn cold the moment she disclosed her North Korean background in her last interview. She had photos made up. It’s customary in South Korea to send a headshot with every application, no matter the job. It’s also common for employers to ask applicants about their height, weight, and plastic-surgery operations. So Won asked the photographer not to Photoshop her face too much, to leave her beauty mark as is. When she got her photos back, the brown speck was gone.