Jae, a 23-year-old North Korean defector, stands nervously in front of the crowd of South Korean high schoolers. “Do North Korean students often date each other?” one student wants to know. Jae, a tall North Korean defector, grins. They do, he says, but secretly. Because students are reprimanded for showing affection, he explains, “if you like someone you often say, ‘Let’s become friends,’ which is basically the same thing as ‘Will you go out with me?'”
When asked about food shortages, Jae explains he became so hungry as a child that he had taken to eating tree bark.
Jae grew up in a North Korean town that bordered the DMZ separating the countries; once in a while, thick balloons from South Korea would drift through the sky and land on the ground. They were sent by human rights activists in the south and filled with USB drives and pamphlets condemning the dictatorial regime in Pyongyang. The police would snatch them up as soon as they reached the ground. But when Jae went into the mountains, away from people, he would see dozens of balloons snagged in bushes and trees.
The questions keep coming, among them, “Do you want to go back?” Jae responds to the question diplomatically. He wants to visit his extended family, but he probably wouldn’t want to live in North Korea again “because of the bad memories.”
Jae has found that many South Korean high schoolers remain fascinated by the prospect of meeting a defector from the north, but have no clue that 25,000 of them now live in their country.