Missile launches have galvanized world attention again on the strange isolated country of North Korea. But scant attention is paid to the trickle of defectors who escape the country’s hardships, and then, basically drown in new freedoms.
Lee Sang-jun is one of tens of thousands of defectors who have settled in South Korea, and most struggle to adjust.
“They lived in an environment where they had to suppress their anger,” says counselor Kim Young-in who works in a government support service. She says many of them suffered a traumatic past.
For Lee, pangs of hunger sear his memory: of being aged seven and surviving on his own as famine gripped North Korea. “I used to just stare at people eating. We’d wait until people threw scraps of food on the ground,” he says. “I spent more than four years living on the streets, hungry and alone. I was literally skin and bone.”
Lee’s mother had fled to China to survive, abandoning her family. His siblings had died or gone far away. Tragically, Lee witnessed his father take his own life. “I had seen people executed by a firing squad since I was little, so it wasn’t really a big deal that everyone in my family had died or left me,” he says matter-of-factly.
After four years his mother made contact through a broker. “It was good to hear she was alive, but it also hurt me a lot,” he says. “I wanted to tell her off badly.
An escape plan was hatched — for Lee to make the perilous journey across the Tumen River into China. Suddenly he was surrounded by plentiful, succulent food. He devoured fried chicken feeling like he’d never stop. But his reunion with his mother was difficult. “She was crying a lot … but I just felt nothing and numb,” he says.
Lee felt overwhelmed by South Korea when he finally arrived in 2006. “I couldn’t believe I’d arrived in this unbelievably perfect place where freedom and happiness were guaranteed,” he says.
But he soon struggled to cope. “I was very aggressive and just had the worst personality. I upset my mum and a lot of people along the way. .. She wasn’t there for any of [my struggles]. So, I don’t see why I need her in my life.”
[Australian Broadcast Corporation]