Strangers and Aliens - North Korean Defectors Struggle in Seoul


“Boa” lives about 90 minutes away from Seoul, South Korea by train. The small apartment Boa lives in is not her own. It was given to her after passing through an entry program in South Korea for North Korean defectors. Boa hasn’t been in North Korea since 2011, when she fled to China.

The apartment consists of a compact kitchen, a living space, narrow hall and a single bedroom shared between her South Korean husband, herself and their one-year-old baby. Though the space is cozy, Boa, like many North Korean refugees, is a small woman. She still has to stand on a chair to reach the top shelf of her kitchen cabinet. Boa did exactly this as she scrambled to find cups to serve her rare guest, “Diane.”

Diane is a Crossing Borders missionary who met Boa in China ten years ago, when life was difficult for Boa. When Boa made the decision to flee to South Korea in 2014, Diane, who was her mentor and friend, alongside Crossing Borders staff, connected Boa with the right people to see her through her journey on the Underground Railroad to Laos.

Half a decade later, sitting in the apartment, holding Boa’s baby boy in her arms as she laughed about old times, a stranger might mistake Diane to be Boa’s own mother. The two chatted about friends, old times, the difficulties and joys of raising children. The two ladies’ conversation, as it often did, settled on the topic of family. Boa’s parents and younger sister still live in North Korea.

“I’ve even thought about going back to China to meet them if they crossed [the border],” shared Boa. It was clear that she had considered so many possibilities, routes, plans to help her family. “But I couldn’t ask them to leave everything. I can’t even be sure if I can help them.”

Crossing Borders has met many professionals and advisors in South Korea who have reported that North Korean refugees in South Korea like Boa are in need. Many North Koreans long for a sense of stability that has eluded them for almost their entire lives. But not all of them have found community like Boa has in her church, which is mostly comprised of North Korean refugees. Not all of them have lost their North Korean accent, their feelings of loss. Like Boa, many of them continue to struggle with memories of home, fear, distant hopes of safety and security that seem impossible to attain.

The stark reality that life in South Korea can be a sharp, discouraging truth for a population of over 33,000 North Korean refugees in South Korea. In 2018, only 23.8 percent of North Korean defectors were provided settlement and livelihood benefits. According to sources who Crossing Borders has interviewed – professionals who serve North Korean refugees in nonprofits, churches and in government offices, many North Koreans who arrive in South Korea must simply wait in an unending queue for resettlement assistance.

 The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (IJERPH), described North Korean defectors as a “mentally vulnerable population” in their study conducted with refugees in March 2018. According to the IJERPH, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression is incredibly high in frequency in the North Korean population in South Korea. The prevalence of depression ranges from 29 percent to 49 percent of North Koreans. Approximately 49 percent of North Koreans interviewed by the IJERPH had experienced or witnessed life-threatening events while 71 percent described traumatic events that involved death, arrest, or violent physical abuse that affected them personally or family members.

However, of North Korean refugees’ struggle with trauma do not simply come to an end with their arrival in South Korea. As the IJERPH describes, mental illnesses only worsen “when the refugees are faced with unexpected stressors after resettlement in South Korea, including acculturative stress, social discrimination, and isolation.” North Koreans, they wrote, were prone to face overwhelming feelings of helplessness and difficult adaptation to society.

Some North Koreans living in South Korea have gone as far as petitioning to the United Nations to return to their oppressive and impoverished homeland. Such refugees remarked that they could no longer stand to experience the isolation and racism in living in South Korea. In an article entitled “Forever Strangers” by The Guardian in April 2018, one North Korean refugee stated that “North Korean defectors are forever strangers in [South Korea], classified as second class citizens… North Korean defectors are treated like cigarette ashes thrown away on the streets.”

As Diane shared Crossing Borders’ plans to begin a safe house in South Korea in 2020, Boa nodded understandingly, quietly. Diane described Crossing Borders’ hopes of building community, of counseling, of caring for many North Koreans who have found themselves utterly lost in South Korea - the place they had longed to reach through strife and struggle. Boa only nodded, but did not comment. But later that evening, as the two women parted ways, Boa pulled Diane aside and said a few words. Crossing Borders staff asked Diane what Boa had said as they left.

“She said that she wished that our safe house had been here when she arrived in Korea,” Diane responded.

Click HERE to find out more about the Crossing Borders’ Elim House project for South Korea.