When elite North Korean soldier Joo Seung-hyeon made his way through the Demilitarized Zone in 2002, avoiding minefields and watchtowers to defect to the South, he thought he was going to a prosperous new life. Joo was partly lured by the promise of a “free and prosperous life” blasted from giant loudspeakers set up by the South’s army along the border. Abandoning his guard post, it took him just 30 minutes to cross the DMZ, crawling under electric barbed wire fences and walking across minefields.
The reality was more complicated than that. South Korea’s pressure-cooker society was a shock. “I was suddenly thrown into this ultra-competitive world ruled by the survival of the fittest,” he wrote. “I realized that I … may never be able to remove this scarlet letter of ‘North Korean defector’.”
Ostracized by Southerners who he says see their Northern cousins as “poor, uncivilized barbarians”, he was dismissed at countless interviews for menial jobs as soon as he revealed his thick accent. One restaurant he found work at paid him half the wages of fellow South Koreans.
But he persevered, eliminating his original tones by repeating radio broadcasts, earning a degree in his spare time, and following up with a PhD in unification studies – the first such doctorate ever earned by a North Korean defector.
Even after graduating, more than 100 job applications in which he identified himself as a defector were rejected. But as soon as he hid that piece of information he started securing interviews and even a few job offers. Now 37, he teaches at several universities in what he described a “rare, lucky case”.
Now he has written a book detailing the challenges faced by Northern defectors in what has become a radically different society. His book tells many heartbreaking stories – including one refugee who committed suicide after struggling to earn a college diploma but still being unable to secure a job. Some South Koreans see the refugees as “untouchables” and another emigrated after South Korean parents at his child’s school publicly protested that their offspring should not mix with his.
Joblessness among defectors is 7 per cent, nearly twice the overall figure in the South, while their monthly income is about half the national average. About 20 per cent of them fall victim to fraud, theft and other crimes, a study showed, noting many then lose a state cash subsidy intended to help them resettle.