Update: A North Korean Refugee’s New Life in Seoul

We posted earlier about a refugee we were supporting in China. We refer to her as “Bo-ah.” Bo-ah spent years working in Chinese restaurants hoping to both make a living and to receive training in the restaurant industry. She hoped to open her own restaurant one day.

These hopes deteriorated over the course of three years. Bo-ah’s employers knew she was a North Korean refugee but said they would pay her a reduced salary. Her pay became less and less frequent as time went on and eventually she wasn’t being paid at all.

This is on top of the fact that she was a North Korean refugee in China. She had to watch out for police who could send her back to North Korea where she would be sent to a prison camp and possibly executed.

Bo-ah had no legal recourse to recover the money she worked so hard for.

She made the difficult decision to take the Modern Day Underground Railroad to Southeast Asia to gain refugee status in South Korea.

But in South Korea, Bo-ah’s struggles continued. She had the equivalent of a 3rd grade education in North Korea but she was in her early 20s.

Bo-ah has climbed back and has finished her high-school education and will be attending college in the fall.

When North Koreans began to pour into South Korea in the late 90s, the population struggled. They had a hard time adjusting to the advanced culture in South Korea and many suffered from depression from the things they experienced both in North Korea and China.

Though these struggles still persist, there have been many success stories. The average income for this population has gone up and the people appear to be adjusting, an expert familiar with the population in Seoul told us.

One of the biggest hurdles for these people to overcome is discrimination. The two Koreas have been at odds for over 60 years now and each side has demonized the other. In the 80s, one could be arrested in South Korea if they spoke with a North Korean accent.

The North Korean accent is distinct from that of the South and people can easily be identified as North Korean by the way they speak. But many North Koreans have learned the new accent. They have learned the new phrases and terms that are commonly used in South Korea. As a result, they have been able to blend in much better.

Many co-workers of North Korean refugees do not know that they have come from the North.

Perception is also changing about North Korean refugees in South Korea. South Korea now airs a television show whose title roughly translates to “ Now On My Way to Meet You,” which focuses on humanizing North Korean refugees living in Seoul. It has become popular and has effectively shifted the perception about North Koreans to many South Korean watchers.

Bo-ah and many of the 27,000 refugees who have made it to South Korea are now on the road to recovery. Yes, there are horror stories and successes but on the whole they are on the rise.

In 2011, it was estimated that North Korean refugees send about $11 million in remittances back to North Korea in a very reliable money transfer system.

Though this population carries much pain and heartache, they are beginning to show signs of growth and improvement.

We see these early refugees not only as survivors with an iron will, they are pioneers who are forging a new way to freedom for the many who will dare follow their lead.

Click here to provide life-giving support North Korean refugees in China through Crossing Borders.