When Jung-ae Gwak, 64, arrived in South Korea, she was often afraid to leave her apartment. “When I was in North Korea, so many things were restricted,” Gwak said. “When you were outside, you weren’t sure who was spying on you, so you always had to be conscious.”
Gwak’s husband died during “the Arduous March”—the famine that killed between 1 and 3 million North Koreans in the years after Kim Il-Sung’s death in 1994. In those years, Gwak sometimes crossed North Korea’s border with China to get food for her starving family. Her trips across the Tumin River raised suspicions, and in 2002 she slipped across the border to escape the regime; she was sent back to North Korea several times and spent time at a detention center for defectors before escaping for good in 2007.
The distance between North and South Korea may be less than three miles, but the Korea societies are decades apart. South Korea is a frenetic hub of modern technology and giddy consumerism; across the most heavily militarized border in the world, North Korea is a undeveloped country whose citizens suffer from intermittent power outages, widespread malnutrition, and a dearth of information about the outside world.
“One way of framing this is that coming from North Korea to South Korea is like jumping 50 years into the future in a day,” said Sokeel Park, a director at Liberty in North Korea, a defector assistance organization in Seoul.
The leap into modernity can be jarring when you’ve come from a place where public transportation can mean flagging down a tractor pulling a trailer. Negotiating the ever-expanding Seoul Metropolitan Subway, which has nine lines in the city and more spreading out to the region, can be a bewildering adventure. The system carries more than 7 million passengers a day, making it one of the busiest and best public transportation systems in the world. In North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang, the nation’s first and only subway system has only 16 stations, two lines. Most North Koreans have never set foot in it.
Gwak is particularly grateful for consistent, hot running water. “All of it feels like a dream really,” Gwak said. “When I think how good it would be if many people in North Korea could come to South Korea and all live well, I feel so bad for North Koreans. Worse than animals, compared to life here.”