Former North Korean refugees are scattered throughout the US in more than three dozen cities, from Los Angeles and Chicago to smaller towns in Idaho, Virginia, and Kentucky.
Daniel. a pseudonym he chose to protect the family he left in North Korea, is one of the 186 refugees who have settled in cities across the US since the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, which established a path for people fleeing the country to gain asylum in America.
Going from the isolated Hermit Kingdom to the land of fast food, consumer culture, and individual freedom is about as close to falling into an alternate universe as reality allows. Yet Daniel can’t help but wax nostalgic about his old life. He lives alone, and it’s been more than five years since he spoke to his family. “I miss everything,” he says in Korean. “The smell of the ground. The dirt. Everything. I didn’t really see how precious it was to be able to live with my family. I don’t have that now.”
Daniel spent time in China at an underground Christian church, where he came in contact with a Christian missionary who was knowledgeable about helping refugees escape to South Korea and the United States. The missionary connected Daniel with a representative of Liberty in North Korea (LINK), a Los Angeles-based NGO that works with North Korean refugees. LINK arranged for him to take trains and buses through China — a journey of some 3,000 miles — to a country in Southeast Asia that he does not name in order to protect LINK’s staff and other defectors still using the same route.
Daniel first found work in the most American of places: a shopping mall, where he worked in a restaurant bakery from 6am until noon, then served as a busboy at another food court eatery from 12:30pm to 5pm. He then found work in the kitchen at the Korean-owned sushi restaurant where he now works as a chef. He clearly takes pride in his craft, describing how the rice has to be “perfect” and the fish must be cut to just the right thickness, but it’s also clear his life is missing something. When asked what he does for fun, he says, “Clean the house.”
“Financial stability, I used to think that was the most important thing, but not anymore, Relationships, I think that’s the most important thing in your life. … I had to become self-sufficient, and I did it,” he says. “Sometimes I do feel miserable, but when I look back, I survived. I made it.”