With a few strokes on a computer tablet, the wide-eyed look of Yong-chul takes shape. In his late 20s, the cartoon character is the face of a young North Korean defector, who has recently arrived in South Korea and is bewildered by his new home.
Yong-chul is the alter ego of Choi Seong-guk, “but better looking and more expressive,” says Choi. Choi himself arrived in Seoul seven years ago, surviving a journey through four countries that took months to complete. He’s been able to turn his creative skills to his advantage, not only to support himself, but also to convey what being a defector from North Korea means. (In the North, he was an animator at Pyongyang’s leading SEK studio when he was arrested and jailed for selling DVDs of banned South Korean movies.)
He escaped north through China, following a route of more than 8,000 kilometers to end up living on the outskirts of Seoul, only 80 kilometers from the heavily fortified and impassable North Korean border.
Today, Choi communicates his impressions of life in the North — and the challenges of defecting to the South — in a series of popular online cartoons. Some are in the dark style of graphic novels, showing the risks of getting shot while crossing the border, being tortured if caught and dragged off to your execution.
“You will often be victimized by louder and stronger people,” he writes in one of his cartoons, above a drawing of a young man being bullied by a bigger character who looks a lot like North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Aside from chronicling the experiences of the newcomers, Choi also helps those who want to leave North Korea. He says he passes along contacts, advice and sometimes money to three to five defectors a month who are determined to make the dicey journey.