Yoon Ok, whose full name is being withheld because of concerns her outspokenness will jeopardize the safety of family still in North Korea, recalls one particular Lunar New Year’s Day. She noticed fireworks and lights blazing in China, while her town received electricity only for a few hours a night.
“I was wondering — why is that country so bright, with so many lights during the day,” she said. “It’s just a border crossing. Why is it so much brighter than North Korea?”
She also watched television from China, where she would sometimes see South Korean soap operas dubbed in Chinese. She didn’t understand the language, but the images made it clear to her that South Korea was a place where she wanted to go. “Their lifestyle was very carefree, freewheeling,” she said. “If they want to do something, they can do something. if they want to travel somewhere, they travel. I could see that life is much freer than in North Korea.”
Yoon Ok made it to South Korea, and found a kitchen job in a Seoul restaurant. She fell in love with cooking and has begun taking classes with a goal of starting her own food truck and perhaps one day bringing it to North Korea.
“In North Korea, we would never think of eating for pleasure,” she said. “Eating was for survival.
“If I have an opportunity to go back or if Korea unifies as one nation, I want to cook for the people in North Korea who couldn’t enjoy eating. I hope they too can have bigger dreams of their own someday.”