Defector Kim Seong Ryeol remembers his experience at school. “My classmates in South Korea didn’t want to include me in teamwork projects because they thought I really lacked understanding of technology, how to write, and the knowledge of classics and history,” he says. He said this made him angry, but added: “It actually motivated me to go further and try to become more like what South Koreans expected.”
Later, when it came to finding a job, his resume would be accepted time and again, but he claims that when it came to the interview stage employees would reject him when they learned he was North Korean.
“Seventy companies I applied to, all rejected … all at the interview level,” he says. “You have interviewers saying, ‘Explain about your high school and middle-school life,’ but we don’t have that kind of experience in North Korea. So you have to say, ‘I come from North Korea and I want to contribute to your company.’ At that level, interviewers are very confused.”
Kim has been left frustrated and disappointed by his treatment in South Korea but it would be inaccurate to say his time in the country has been all bad. In 2015, after completing his undergraduate studies, he won a scholarship from the Open Society Foundation, a New York-based grant-making organization, to do a master’s degree in unification studies at a South Korean university.
This August he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study a Ph.D. in the U.S. starting next year.
Kim says he wants President Trump — and the American public in general — to see beyond the North Korean regime and realize most of the country’s 25 million people are blameless civilians. “The people, they’re really kind and just… normal,” he says. “They try every day to only focus on their life. That’s all.”