Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week’s question is:
How do Americans react when you tell them you’re from North Korea?
When I first escaped from North Korea and safely arrived in the the U.S., I vaguely assumed that people would be intrigued just to learn that I came from the Hermit Kingdom.
There is a good reason why I had come to that assumption. If someone defected from America or South Korea to North Korea, they’re instantly put on state media to be used as a political tool for propaganda by the regime. In this way, their presence and arrival is immediately known to everyone in the country. Around the time I first came to America, there were few North Korean defectors who sought asylum and settled down here. I had told myself that I would do my best to not be exposed to the media.
However, from the very early stages, everything I had in mind about America turned out to be wrong. I had never imagined that the most powerful and wealthiest country such as America would provide me with accommodations where I had to sleep on the couch. From the time I sought asylum, I had to spend a year in a country in Southeast Asia waiting to hear back from immigration. During that time, I was dreaming of a nice apartment and appliances equipped with cutting-edge technology in America. I was very sad because I could find none of them in my old apartment. Looking at a very old vintage TV and VHS tapes, both of which had already disappeared from Pyongyang, I couldn’t believe that it was an accommodation provided by America.
Being from North Korea, I was skeptical of almost everything. I asked myself, “Is this really America? Am I really on the way to America?” At the moment, my two roommates who had arrived ahead of me walked out of their bedrooms, saying “Welcome to America!” with North Korean accents. That’s when I realized that I was really on the way to America. All of the disappointing furniture and home appliances were the reality of America. The next day, I went to a place where they handle papers for refugees. There I saw hundreds of refugees from Cuba, Somalia and Bhutan. I finally realized that I was not “special.”
Some were completely ignorant of North Korea or they knew very little. Others seemed to know more about the country and showed deep concern
Yet, the not-so-special refugee support system of America does not represent the country’s disinterest in North Korea. All Americans I met fell into two categories: Some were completely ignorant of North Korea or they knew very little. Others seemed to know more about the country and showed deep concern for the situation in North Korea. As North Korea is often in the media for its nuclear program, violations of human rights and succession process, the words “North Korea” themselves aren’t particularly new to them. It seemed to me that people seemed to have heard of “North Korea” at least once in their lives.
Once I was working in a shop and my boss introduced me to one of the regular customers. As soon as my boss said that I was from North Korea, the face of the customer was immediately filled with amusement and he did a horse-riding dance shouting “Oh, Gangnam style!” My boss and I couldn’t help but chuckle in disbelief. I could understand why he would’ve gotten confused because it was the time when everybody was talking about Gangnam Style and Psy.
When I meet someone for the first time, I just tell them “I’m from Korea.” Some of them would ask me back “North or South?” Then, I think to myself, “This person knows a bit more than the average American,” and I reply “I am from the North.” They say “Oh, it’s a nice country!” in response. These people think they know but they actually don’t. They just pretend as if they know but they can’t even distinguish North Korea from the South.
Washington, D.C. is my new home. This is where my life is now. I think I’m more likely to run into someone who takes an interest in North Korea here than anywhere else in America. At first, I was worried that I might face discrimination and hostility just for the fact that I came from North Korea. While applying for asylum, permanent residency and naturalization, I was asked numerous times if I had received military training or if I had trained to use weapons. I think this reflects that Americans became more sensitive and cautious after 9/11.
Usually, I don’t voluntarily reveal that I’m from North Korea
In American and South Korean films, North Korean people are usually depicted as spies or terrorists who demonstrate ultimate loyalty to the regime. After witnessing how North Korean characters are depicted unfavorably in those films, I became self-conscious of the fact that I come from North Korea. Usually, I don’t voluntarily reveal that I’m from North Korea. But when I have to reveal it to someone, I feel hesitant to do so because I’m keenly aware of the stereotype. That hesitancy led me to continuously think about my identity.
WHERE I’M COMING FROM
Thankfully, most Americans I’ve met so far haven’t show hostility toward me just because I am from North Korea. They didn’t look down on me. Often they asked me if my remaining family members and relatives were safe in North Korea, rather than showering me with questions about North Korea itself. They opened up to me and became my friends. They invited me to have dinner with them at restaurants or their houses. I don’t think they invited me for dinner solely because they wanted to ask me about North Korea. These people knew more about North Korea on a professional level. Such “open-mindedness” among Americans taught me that you cannot discriminate someone else based on their past and cultural background. Thanks to this, I was able to live with more confidence in America as a young man from North Korea.
Most Americans seem to care more about my opinion on North Korea rather than where I come from and how I was brought up. In North Korea, all important things in your life – college, occupation, marriage – are decided based on your Songbun (social status). Thus, when North Koreans meet each other for the first time, they usually ask “What do your parents do?” That’s what I was used to, growing up in North Korea. Americans place importance on the soul and thoughts of a person rather than judging that person purely on the appearance of that person. It made me realize that free will plays an important role in allowing a human to live with dignity. I also came to realize that just because I’m from North Korea does not mean I can do something tremendously significant for the unification.
From time to time, I see North Koreans who give testimony or work as human rights activists and give a speech at the invitation of various organizations. When someone begins to work as a human rights activist just because he or she is from North Korea, they give up pretty soon without getting anything done. I’ve witnessed that only those with a calling and clear objectives who have their own original opinions and analysis of North Korea-related issues through continuously studying on the topic do actually get something done in bringing a positive change to North Korea. It is my conviction that the best and only way for young North Koreans to do anything promising for the future of the Korean Peninsula is to keep themselves educated based on their experience in North Korea.
The above is the perspective of the author, and may not be representative of all North Korean defectors.
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Editing by Rob York and translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Adam Westerman