About 25,000 North Koreans have escaped to the South over the past two decades.
The first wave of defectors tended to be high-ranking officials who were treated like royalty in the South, mined for information about Kim Jong Il’s regime.
But then thousands who were not considered so valuable in the South’s eyes started arriving, including many from the impoverished northern provinces of North Korea. They had no useful information about Kim and his cronies, spoke with country-bumpkin accents, and didn’t know how to use credit cards or smartphones — essentials of life in the South.
But their children have grown up in South Korea and have been able to integrate more easily. “These are people who came here 10 years ago and are the first wave of high school and university graduates,” said Joanna Hosaniak, deputy director general of the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights. “Now they’re writing books, painting, showing leadership in their own areas. They’re like eggs that are hatching.”
That applies even to the most disadvantaged of North Korean children — the kkot-jebi. In the North, these children survive by begging and scrounging for food, and can often be seen sleeping around train stations. The problem of homeless children was particularly severe in the first decade of the 21st century, after a devastating famine in the 1990s caused perhaps millions of North Koreans to die of starvation or flee across the border to China. Many left behind children who had no choice but to fend for themselves.
While malnutrition is still common in North Korea, starvation is not. That means there are fewer traditional kkot-jebi in the closed state, but new categories of “swallows” are emerging. Today, North Koreans talk about the other “swallows” who have flown away: the gun-jebi, who have left the military; the chong-jebi (young adults) and noh-jebi (elderly people) who are living on the streets. There are even whole families — kachok-jebi — leaving their homes to look for food.
As many as 2 million people in North Korea — a tenth of the population — are homeless, says Kim Hyuk, a former kkot-jebi who has written a memoir, The Boy Who Stole Freedom. “People now have more flexibility because the state can’t provide for them,” said Kim, who is enrolled in a doctoral program in North Korean policy at a South Korean institute.