by JAMES S. KIM
Plenty of political experts and researchers have discussed how to deal with the reclusive state of North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong-un. However, what often gets lost in that discourse is the state of the North Korean people.
Joo Yang defected to South Korea in 2011. Since then, she has worked as an activist with Liberty in North Korea (LINK), a nonprofit that helps rescue and resettle North Korean refugees, and as a participant on the television program “Now on My Way to Meet You,” which features North Korean women. She also participated in LINK’s two-day SUMMIT conference last weekend at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA. KoreAm was able to attend, so look forward to our recap soon.
With the help of LINK, Yang participated in an “Ask Me Anything (AMA)” session on Reddit, providing honest and even a few eye-opening responses to the questions posed by Redditors. You can read read the full AMA here. Here are some highlights:
You say that your parents defected first. Did the North Korean government know about this and did you face any repercussions?
In North Korea, it’s very hard to know the weather forecast because of frequent power cuts, unlike in South Korea. So we made a cover story that my father had died at sea and my mother and other family members had left our house to try to find any remains of my father. So I was in our house my myself, but the secret police came to ask me questions. I stuck to the story and told them that my family had become separated, and stonewalled their questions. I knew that the secret police used people in the neighborhood to monitor my behavior, but I just pretended not to notice and carried on living my life.
Since crossing the border into south Korea, have you encountered any negativity or prejudice from the South Korean people?
South Korean people can be quite discriminating, for instance against Korean-Chinese people living in South Korea. When I speak, I have a dialect and to many South Koreans it sounds like how Korean-Chinese people from Northeast China speak. Sometimes people have asked if I’m from there, and I felt negativity in their tone. Also, one time my auntie was riding in a taxi when the driver asked where she was from. When she replied “North Korea”, he stopped the car and asked her to get out! Even so, for me personally, I think that being open with where I am from helps me to adapt to life here in the long run.
Could you share a personal moment from your past that, looking back now, influenced you (and your parents) to defect?
My grandfather always told us that our generation must find freedom. And he told us about modern technology and advanced countries. Also, my father listened to foreign radio illegally since I was 9 years old. That had a really big influence. South Korean radio, Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Asia (RFA) … we could hear news including news from people who had defected first so we got courage from that and were able to plan our defection strategy.
What was it like to go from a world with very little of today’s modern technology to a world with the Internet and its capabilities to connect you with people and information all over the world?
First it was kind of like arriving in the modern world in a time machine. There were so many things I didn’t know, but as I learnt one thing after another by trying them, that was really fun. Even typing on a computer was really novel and fun at first. It’s been three years, but even now there’s still a lot of new things.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to adjust to?
There were a lot of new culture shocks to get used to and understand, for instance toilets and ATMs, and using an electronic card to ride the subway… Escalators, elevators, all of those things. haha. And in South Korea they use a lot of “Konglish,” or borrowed words, so I had to get used to that.
In North Korea, I never saw a sit-down toilet. We always used squat toilets. So when I first saw a sit-down toilet when I was in China, I didn’t know what to do. I actually climbed up and used it as if it was a squat toilet.
When I was in the South Korean National Intelligence Service debriefing facility [that all NKorean defectors go through] the South Korean officials used to plead with the defectors not to climb up on the toilet seat, but many defectors still wanted to because they felt they couldn’t go to the toilet otherwise! hahaha
If you ask any North Korean defector, they will also know what you mean if you say “bidet shower.” That’s because we’ve all experienced making the mistake of using a bidet wrong the first time we saw one, and getting water all over ourselves. I did that once too. But now we have a bidet in my house!
There must have been a ton of (obvious) reasons why you defected, but is there anything you miss from North Korea?
There’s lots! First, my friends. My neighbors were like family back home too, so I miss them. Also from my hometown, the air, the water, even the smell of the earth. I miss all of those things.
How are North Korean weddings celebrated?
North Korean women really want to enjoy romance. In North Korea we wear traditional Korean-style clothes for wedding dresses (joseon-ot, or hanbok in South Korea), but more recently because of the effects of foreign media, some North Korean women want to wear a white wedding dress at their wedding! But that has not been possible in North Korea yet. So people are adapting the traditional style wedding dress and making it look more beautiful.
Another thing is that normally the wedding ceremony is done in the house of the groom and the bride, once each. But if it’s too expensive to get all the food for that, then sometimes they combine it and just do it once in one side’s house.
What kind of feelings did you have when you arrived in South Korea and saw the quality of life that many people have? How did you adjust to this?
When I got here I felt like South Koreans could eat the kind of food that North Koreans eat on special occasions every day. Most ordinary North Koreans eat “corn-rice” as their staple food, but that is rough. But on special days like Kim Il-sung’s birthday some people can eat white rice. In fact some people can’t even eat white rice on those special days. But in South Korea, even homeless people eat white rice!
As for how I adjusted … well it tastes pretty good, so I’m adjusting well! Even though sometimes I miss North Korean food too …
Do the people of North Korea really believe that Kim Jong-il and his father and grandfather actually have superhuman powers or do they just say they do out of fear?
I think that people believe it kind of like people believe in the bible. Well, that’s the case for children. But when you grow up, you realize those stories do not make sense, but you still have to memorize it well for the school tests in order to graduate from school well. More recently, amongst close friends, people will complain that this kind of ideological education will not actually help you in your life. I felt like that too.
Many people who travel to North Korea as tourists believe that, by engaging with North Koreans, they are able to humanize foreigners and perhaps help change North Korean’s minds about them. However, others believe tourism there is wrong because much of the money goes to support an oppressive government. In your opinion, do you think that tourism in North Korea is a positive force or a negative one?
Firstly, I think if there are chances for North Korean citizens to meet foreigners then tourism can be a good thing. This is because North Koreans are curious about foreigners, and if they can interact then they can feel more friendly towards them, and see them as normal humans. However I’m also personally not comfortable with the North Korean government making foreign currency from it. So there are pros and cons. So, I hope that if people are visiting North Korea and paying their way, then maybe they can make more requests to the government and see more than just the ‘good course’ around Pyongyang and so on.
Image via LINK