Joo In-hee (not her real name) is a scrap-metal dealer in Incheon and earns a living by exporting junk cars. She never imagined she would be doing such a job in her early 20s when she lived in North Korea.
Her dream was to be an accountant, sitting in an elegant office sipping tea and doing paperwork. She was once close to her dream as she chose to study commerce at Pyongsong University.
After graduation, she got the job she wanted thanks to an uncle in the military. She found work as an accountant in a factory, but she endured bitter poverty. To help ends meet, she began illegally selling fish across the border in China. She was eventually arrested and sent to prison.
When she was released, she resolved to leave the communist North and settle down in the South; and for a time, she did.
She was sent to Hanawon, a resettlement support institution for refugees from the North, and then worked successively as a masseuse, a 24-hour care giver and a construction worker.
She did what she had to for survival. “Life was hard,” she recalled.
I interviewed her for my master’s paper at the Jesuit-run Sogang University on North Korean refugees struggling to resettle in the South.
I was searching for the answer to a straight-forward question: Why were educated and skilled North Korean women having so much trouble succeeding in the South? I interviewed a dozen women in an effort to answer that question.
The women I interviewed took great pride in their abilities but despaired that they were treated as second-class citizens in South Korea. They wondered if they had made the right choice to leave their homes.
Lee Ae-ran, the first refugee from the North to earn a doctorate degree in South Korea, and who subsequently won the 2010 Courage Award from the US State Department, said her transition to life in the South was difficult.
Upon her arrival, the only work she could find was cleaning hotel bathrooms.
“My life in North Korea was not perfect. Nevertheless, I did not clean bathrooms there,” she said.
“North Korean refugees could be a [touchstone] for the South Korean government to prepare for reunification.”
But the government’s approach indicated that they did not know how to proceed in this way.
It is not fair to blame the government for the lack of support. It was only in the 1990s that a rise in refugees really made headlines in the South. Refugee numbers topped 20,000 by January 2011, according to data from the Unification Ministry. Seventy-eight percent of those were women.
“It may be just too much to ask the government to be a cure-all,” said one woman, who identified herself only as Kang.
“There are already many of us here, but the government has got to take care of the less privileged people of the South.”
What bothers her, she said, was not the lack of resources or money from the government but the discrimination from her South Korean peers.
“Some of them just hate me,” she said. “At first, I hated them back. But now, I try to understand them. In their eyes, I am the one who deprives them of their tax money.”
What is the answer, I asked. What should the government do with the rising number of refugees from the North?
“Use us,” the women agreed. “Use our experiences and knowledge for reunification.”
Choi Yu-na (not her real name) was the only woman of the 12 who expressed hope for the future. A surgeon with 20 years’ experience in the North, she was about to complete a medical degree in Seoul at the age of 50.
“I am lucky to be able to continue my career [here],” she said.
But most refugees aren’t that lucky.
“When a South Korean person takes one step, I have to take 10, just to keep up with them,” Joo said.
“That’s reality. And I have no power to change it.”
Hopefully, efforts to change this reality will succeed. Refugees deserve respect because they are citizens of South Korea, whose right for happiness is guaranteed by the constitution.
Chun Su-jin is a news reporter at the Joongang Ilbo daily
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