A blog by Grant Montgomery, co-founder of Family Care Foundation, a 501c3 that provides emergency services and sustained development for families on 5 continents. This site highlights the plight of 300,000 North Koreans who have fled their country due to the brutal oppression of a Stalinist North Korean regime, as well as those still living in North Korea.
Jeon Geum-ju, 32, left Hoeryong in 2008, and made it to South Korea:
I got good grades in high school, so I thought I’d go to college. But I discovered that in North Korea only the children of high-level officials are sent to college. The state assigned me to a shoe factory that didn’t produce any shoes. I ended up just doing manual labor like digging and planting trees.
One day when I was 20, I met a Chinese girl who was traveling with her family and she told me about South Korea. It was a pivotal moment for me. I’d never even left my city, but I was inspired to leave.
I was 24 years old when I finally arrived in South Korea. I was so conflicted about going to college. I would have been 30 by the time I graduated, so I did an accounting qualification instead because I was good at math.
Meanwhile, my childhood dream was to be a florist. So I started working for free for a florist on Wednesday and Friday nights after work and on Saturdays from dawn. When I was working in the flower shop, I was so happy. I began looking into this seriously as a career.
For three years, I saved up my earnings from my accountancy job so I could study in Canada for three months. Then I went to the U.K. to do a six-month floristry course. I loved it so much. I got an internship with a very prestigious florist in London. I started with menial work like cleaning, but I was sometimes allowed to arrange the flowers myself. So I always made myself available early in the morning and late at night. Because of this, doors opened to me.
Now I work in Seoul as a floristry teacher, and I run an online store selling bouquets of flowers. My dream is to open my own flower shop. Usually, people just buy flowers and walk out, but I want my place to be a place where people can sit and chat face-to-face surrounded by flowers.
North Korea released a South Korean citizen on Tuesday who was detained in the North last month, a rare humanitarian gesture welcomed by the South Korean government. The 34-year-old man, who was identified only by his last name, Seo, was arrested in North Korea for illegal entry on July 22.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry released no further details, citing a pending investigation. The man will probably face criminal charges in South Korea because of a national law that bars citizens from visiting the North without government permission.
Tuesday’s repatriation came as the North is mounting pressure on South Korea to return those citizens it says are being held in the South against their will. Two North Koreans, Kim Ryen-hi and Kwon Chol-nam, are campaigning for their repatriation to the North, saying that their decisions to defect were mistakes.
I worked in a convenience store to make money to pay back the $12,000 in debt I had to the broker who got me out of North Korea. I was also preparing for my college entrance exam, and in 2014, I started studying social work at university.
I realized that South Koreans didn’t know the reality of North Korea. There are aspects of North Korea that are exaggerated in South Korea, sensationalized for political reasons. I wanted to tell people about real life inside North Korea and make sure they knew that there are humans who are living there. Although I consider myself an introvert, I felt that I could do it on YouTube.
The most popular video I have posted is “10 Things that I Found Most Interesting in South Korea.” I talked about how surprised I was to see so much variety on television in South Korea. In North Korea, there’s only one television channel. I also thought it was amazing that you could turn on the tap, and hot water would come out. At home in North Korea, we had to boil water to have a bath. I think this video was popular because South Koreans want to hear about South Korea more than they want to hear about North Korea.
I don’t earn much money from doing this, but that’s not the reason I do it. I really want to separate the lives of the North Korean people from politics and counteract the exaggerated views of North Korea. With these videos, I hope I can promote mutual understanding.
During the famine, my mother and I were traveling together, and I was about 10, and we got separated and I never saw her again. From that time on, I had to fend for myself. At first I was so hungry I would eat anything I found on the ground. I started begging, but people weren’t offering food to me. So I learned to steal.
When I was about 15 years old, I began selling apricots on trains. Then I sold cigarettes, and moved onto plastic Chinese kitchen goods like lunchboxes and utensils, and at the end I was selling bicycle tires.
When I first got to South Korea, I could see that smartphones were big business, so I started an online store. Later, I would buy aronia berries, a popular health food, close to their expiration date, then sell them on the Internet. Then I started growing wild roses for making soap and room fragrance and tea. Working on online shopping platforms had opened my eyes to IT opportunities. So in 2016, I also started a website design business. That’s my main business now.
When people realize I’m from North Korea, they say: Do you even know anything about business or capitalism? But I had faith in my business acumen and my abilities, and now I’m getting inquiries about franchising my tofu rice business. I’m going to the United States to learn about entrepreneurship.
In the future, I want to be in a business related to North Korea so I can help children who had a difficult childhood like me.
When waves of North Koreans began arriving in the South during a devastating famine 20 years ago, many encountered a world that might as well have been on another planet. They had to learn to use credit cards and smartphones, to withstand the noise and the bustle and the neon lights, to hold down jobs that actually required them to show up. They had to cope with disparaging remarks or insistent queries when South Koreans heard their accents or marveled if they couldn’t use a computer.
But many of the young men and women coming out of the North today? They’re thriving.
Entrepreneurial spirit, artistic expression and a will to compete are blossoming as they move abruptly from a country dedicated to a brutally enforced totalitarian personality cult to the tumult of South Korean capitalism. And even as they lose their northern accents and embrace southern fashions, they don’t hide their roots.
“I’m proud of the fact that I’m North Korean. It’s a big part of my identity,” said Park Su-hyang, a 27-year-old who helped found Woorion, a network that helps escapees settle in the South, and is one of a crop of video bloggers trying to change stereotypes.
“We often think of refugees as victims, and North Koreans, as they adjust to a very different society in South Korea, inevitably do face challenges,” said Sokeel Park, South Korea country director for Liberty in North Korea, an organization that helps escapees from the North. “But in my work with hundreds of North Koreans who have settled here, I’ve been very impressed not just with their resilience but also with their creativity and ambition and their spirit for really making the most of their lives.”
These young and determined people, activists say, will be the ones who bridge the gap between the two Koreas if the countries are reunified. They are the test lab for reunification.
One in every 10 people living in North Korea are forced into forms of slavery, used to prop up the repressive regime and keep the country’s population under tight control, according to a new report, The 2018 Global Slavery Index, compiled by the Walk Free Foundation.
According to the report, more than 2.6 million out of North Korea’s 25 million inhabitants are subjected to modern slavery, the highest proportion of a single country’s population worldwide. Most were forced to work with no guarantee of compensation.
The Walk Free Foundation is an Australia-based organization dedicated to monitoring and ending various forms of slavery worldwide and spurring global action to that effect. It was founded by the billionaire Australian mining mogul Andrew Forrest.
The regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un uses several different methods to impose slavery on its people. From interviews with 50 North Korean defectors, all described work in North Korea as centrally organized by the ruling party, and many indicated they had either not been paid, or their pay was subjected to state-held deductions. Read more
North Korean interviewees reported that children and adults were forced to work unpaid through “communal labor” in agriculture or construction. Adults were sometimes forced to work 70 to 100 days in a row and faced punishment or decreased food rations if they disobeyed orders.
Defectors also described labor training camps — essentially state-run prisons — where citizens who were unemployed for more than 15 days were sent to perform hard labor, usually for a minimum of six months.
Even absence from work is not permitted and could result in harsh punishment. “If you are absent without an excuse, you are detained in a labor training camp,” a male defector said, according to the report.
Two defectors spoke of “shock brigades” also known as “storm troopers” — groups of typically very poor men and women who were forced to perform heavy labor, often in construction, for years at a time.
One female defector said her monthly work salary was used to fund forced labor. “I did not receive compensation,” she said. “From my workplace, they were taking money to support shock brigades and as a result of deducting such an amount from our salaries we did not receive any money.”
According to a defector who once claimed membership in the Korean Workers’ Party, and served in the North Korean air force before he resettled in the South, important features of Pyongyang’s planned economy are gravely misunderstood as are incidents like the execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle-in-law Jang Song Thaek.
The defector, identified only as Kim, said drastic actions from powerful members of the North Korean regime, including Jang, were responsible for the shutdown of North Korean industry when millions starved.
When North Korea publicly disclosed the execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle-in-law in 2013, the news sent shock waves around the world. North Koreans may also have been surprised, but not shocked, when Jang was sentenced to death by his nephew.
But according to defector Kim, Jang was a “bad person” who enriched himself during North Korea’s notorious 1994-98 Great Famine, when idle machines in factories were torn apart and sold. Jang was responsible for selling North Korean coal to China, even though the energy source was needed domestically.
Jang, who secretly controlled the levers of power in the North for decades, also ordered the rounding up of citizens with spinal disorders that cause dwarfism, Kim said. The victims were sent to concentration camps because Jang believed their presence in society was “bad for socialism.” The men and women were “secretly kidnapped,” and families would find them unexpectedly missing when they returned home.
North Korea’s economy may also baffle outsiders. Profits are the least of economic priorities in North Korea, the defector said, where a pair of shoes that costs 60 cents to produce would be supplied to the population at 3 cents. The notion of an economy that benefits people in this way also means Kim Jong Un is not the kind of dictator outsiders have assumed him to be.