What do defectors miss most their lives in North Korea?

Family, friends and strong sense of community among things defectors miss about North Korea
April 18th, 2014

Although many defectors feel they had no choice but to leave North Korea, it’s important to remember that the DPRK was once the place they called home – in some cases for several decades or more. And while the South Korean government invests substantial resources in helping arriving North Koreans acclimatize to their new lives, surveys regularly show just how marginalized defectors can be in their new home.

So, while many defectors have painful memories about their former lives in the DPRK, there are sometimes elements of life in North Korea which they miss.

In part five of our special NK News refugee insight interview series we asked our respondents to tell us what they missed most about their former lives in North Korea. While family and friends predictably emerged as a common thread in the responses, many participants said they also longed for North Korea’s strong sense of community and a simpler way of life.

To learn more about the biographies of the refugees NK News interviewed for this series, please click here


Friends and family fishing in Wonsan | Picture: E. Lafforgue

Question 5. What do you miss most about your life in North Korea and why?

NAYOUNG-KOHI miss my friendships and the innocent people in North Korea.

Although we were poor, we were all friends with our neighbors and we all were very close in North Korea.

Life in South Korea may be affluent and wealthy, but South Koreans aren’t as innocent or sympathetic as North Koreans. It was the most difficult thing about starting anew in South Korea.

Back in North Korea, people always shared food with each other on holidays. But South Koreans are individualistic, and they don’t even know who lives right next door after living in the same apartment complex for 10 years.


I miss the days I spent with my family. There’s no reason for this besides the fact that they’re my family.

I feel guilty when I feel happy in South Korea. My heart aches to even think about my family I left behind, who accept their fate in North Korea and who still don’t know about the outside world.

I also miss my childhood friends who were so innocent.

After coming to South Korea, I miss innocent people and friendships.

Of course, I’ve met nice people in South Korea, but I feel sad that I don’t have friends to empathize with and who share childhood memories with me.

JIHYUN-PARKWhat I miss most dearly are the times when I would sit around the table with my whole family and laugh away, even though the only things on the table were a bowl of broth and a bowl of rice.

All I want to do is to call out loud to my father, mother, sister, and brother. When somebody tells me to write down the word “longing,” I immediately think of my home, where our memories, happiness, and joys all remain.

During the time I wandered through foreign countries like a vagrant, the time I had to live under an alias, and the time when I had to live like a slave in someone else’s home, I looked back on those memories and found solace in them.

It was thanks to these memories that I was able to make it through all the dangers to reach freedom. The longing is always in my heart, and I keep it there so as not to lose it. The power and love of my family is what made us who we are today. I always keep a room in the corner of my heart for this longing.


Woman rides to work in Hamhung, North Korea | Picture: E. Lafforgue

INAE-HYUN-NKNEWSWhat I miss most about my life in North Korea are the strong bonds and friendships I had with people.

Of course, I have friends here in South Korea.

But, it isn’t the same.

It feels more special to build a strong bond with people from the country where I was born.

Also, another thing: Peoople in the socialist state didn’t own property.

Because of this, they were more innocent.

soon-kyungWhat do I miss most?

First let me remind you one thing.

North Korea is a s totalitarian society that completely ignores the individual’s life, preferences, and tastes.

It is a suffocating society where politics govern individual relationships.

As I enjoy my individual freedom in South Korea, I don’t really have any nostalgia for North Korea.

However, it’s true that I miss the family and friends who I have left behind in North Korea.

JI-MIN-KANGWell, everyone has memories of home. Sometimes I get nostalgic, and certain things get exaggerated in my memory. Maybe that’s because it’s somewhere that’s very present in my memory, yet somewhere that I can never visit again.

Sometimes I think that I have become quite lazy, because I have everything I need here. Some time ago, I was reading and needed to write something down on a notebook. I looked down, and was surprised by how poor my handwriting had become. As I’m writing this now, I’m at a computer, comfortably typing away. But in North Korea, everything is done by hand. I sometimes miss this old-fashioned charm.

Back in those days, we used to write letters for confessions of love. We would write to our beloved, and wait at a certain meeting place. Waiting and waiting for the beloved with a sunken heart – it’s all a funny memory now that I think about it. A world where everything is accessible through mobile phones and computers is convenient, but it has taken away the old-fashioned charm in certain things. It has also taken away from the close personal bonds I had with people in North Korea. I really miss my friends in North Korea. I have lived in (South) Korea, and now, in the UK, amidst many friends and interpersonal relations, but I can never seem to have the ingenuous, uncalculated relationships that I had formed back in North Korea.

There would be many reasons for this, but the biggest one seems to be in the cultural differences. For starters, I have become much more cautious. What I have come to feel in South Korea is that some of the things that I thoughtlessly say or do come off to others as puzzling or harmful. These cultural differences have made me cautious and have made it difficult for me to form candid relationships with people. The same goes for my counterparts. When they learn that I am a defector, they also seem to tense up and become more cautious in approaching me. They have no understanding of my cultural background.

Another thing that breaks up my conversations with people is a lack of shared cultural experience. Those of you who are reading this will find it easy to find peers with shared cultural memories – things like favorite childhood cartoon characters or favorite pop stars. These commonalities would be what keep your conversations going. But in my case, I have nothing like that to bond over, so it is hard for me to hang out with friends in that way. This lack of close interpersonal relations has become one of the reasons that I miss North Korea.

The residents in the apartment where I live in London hardly know each other. Except for maybe one or two people, you hardly know who lives where in the UK. But in North Korea, everyone in your block knows and greets one another. Neighbors celebrate birthday parties together and help each other out in festivities. I sometimes miss these things. It’s all very friendly and personal. Liberalism, and the importance it places on privacy, comes off to me as too cold-hearted sometimes.


Family photo time | Picture: R. Cunningham

SUNG-HA-JOOI miss my relatives and friends the most.

My relationships in South Korea aren’t deep enough.

Anywhere in the world, people make real friends until their time at university. As such, friends from work are all related to gain and loss – shallow relationships, indeed.

I think I miss my hometown because of this reason.

Besides that, I don’t miss my life in North Korea much.

Loneliness from leaving my hometown makes me miss North Korea, but I believe it is same for everyone who lives away from their home.

SE-HYOK-OHAll people want treasured and innocent memories – memories with parents, and of course, memories with friends.

Though it might sound strange, I have more more good memories from North Korea than unpleasant ones.

Even though I like living in the free South Korean economy and may become rich, I still have memories of the time when I couldn’t live freely.

However, while difficult memories in North Korea come to mind, South Korean life is tough, too. If I think about the unsteady future, I think it will become even more tough. Will I become greedy?
Rather than longing for family, I would say I have nothing to long for, as my family doesn’t exist to me any more.

SUNG-GUK-CHOII miss my friends, because they were always friendly to me.

I miss the people from my town, because I am not used to South Korean society.

I also miss the North Korean way of life, because I was born and raised in North.

We have not included answers from two respondents who misunderstood the question as “What do North Koreans miss the most in society?”

To learn more about the biographies of the refugees NK News interviewed for this series, please click here

NK News would like to thank Seung-hee Nah, Eunkyoung Kwon, Elizabeth Jae, JH Ahn, Ye Seul Byeon and Catherine Salkeld for their assistance in producing this series.

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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.

Join the discussion

  • Norman Zaczyk

    It seems akward to me that some of them demand the missing innocence of the people outside of North Korea. What are they guilty of? Greedyness is pretty normal for the Western World so i don’t think I (or most other people) are not innocent because of that reason alone… Are these maybe leftovers of the propaganda in North Korea?

    • Perhaps

      Perhaps. Now, when I hear talk of how they miss the closeness of the community, I don’t think so. But when I hear talk about the “Innocence” of life… Well… It may be cultural, it may be translation based, but when I hear that my mind jerks to “The Cleanest Race.” North Korea/ns as the doe-eyed innocents too good to survive in the wicked world without the protection of a paternal leader.

    • Zeedraak

      I don’t think that’s the point. Andrew Holloway spent a year in North Korea and in his story A Year In Pyongyang he recalls the North Koreans to be “sweet, endearing, innocent people…These people may not be creating much wealth but they have a happy time being together”.

      He remembers “a group of young women in their late teens or early twenties whom I guessed to be college students playing tag on the banks of the Potang River. It was not just that they were playing a childhood game, but they were playing it with the high-pitched abandonment that does not survive the junior school playground in the West”.
      “I can honestly say that the citizens of sinister, Stalinist North Korea are the nicest people I have ever met in my life.”

      Apparently the North Koreans are friendly, enthusiastic and naive and this makes them an innocent people.

  • Paul

    There’s definitely a reoccurring theme here. This has made me realise that even here in Australia we don’t have close bonds with our nabours. There a lot we can learn from the innocent people of north korea. We focus on the bad parts of nk we over look the good. The kim cult is near its end & when it dose happen we should not only focus on bring the nk people up to speed but may be slow our selfs down enough to smell the roses & love thy nabour.

    • JK

      Definitely agree on the reoccurring theme and it is true, capitalist societies tend to be more about the individual. But I believe most of what they are feeling is because they are defectors. People create close bonds through their young years, pre 20′s. For them they have left all that behind and it is extremely hard to make close friends past your that. Truly a sad reality, I wish it were not so I feel so much sorrow for them.

  • joshuagenes

    In America southern people have closer bonds with each other than in the north where people feel a little colder. I think this stems from the porch culture that existed before air-conditioning. Compared to a lot of Europeans who culturally mind their own business Americans have less problem getting into each others business to be helpful or friendly. I think North Koreans would do well in America. It would do us well to increase our supply of innocent friendly people.

  • saveourmoney

    It’s sad to read these comments and difficult, if not impossible, to relate to their experience – leaving family, friends, and culture behind forever without so much as a good bye. These defectors have been on an extraordinarily difficult journey; I hope the two Koreas unite in their lifetimes so they can see their loved ones again.

  • Benjamin Wagner

    N Korea and N Koreans praise candidness and lack of guile highly when discussing their interactions amongst themselves but when it comes to interactions with foreigners in the outside world North Korea counsels and practices stratagems, deceit and low cunning.