SEOUL - The distance between the North Korean border town of Hyesan and South Korea’s capital Seoul is 440 kilometers (273 mi) as the crow flies. It took Park Kun-ha five years to complete the journey.
His way turned out not only to be a lot longer but tortuous, taking him through the jungle of large Chinese cities, Southeast Asian rain forests, labor camps, and even prison. It was a modern odyssey during which he became the victim of crime and a thief himself, as well as rag collector, beggar, harvest hand and tile carrier. He made it to his destination in the end – only to discover that he wasn’t really welcome.
Park, a native of North Korea now living in Seoul, is one of 25,000 refugees who have managed the perilous escape from the Communist country isolated from the rest of the world to seek a new life in the south.
"The trip of death" is what refugees like Park call the risky North-South trek. Nobody knows how many give up along the way, are arrested by North Korean officials, or are arrested in China and kicked out. Only the ones who actually make it know how dangerous the journey is. Park left in June 2000 and got to Seoul in June 2005.
The easiest part was fleeing across the border to China on foot, the 50-year-old man says. He was a customs inspector at the border, so it was relatively easy to find a moment when he could wade across the Amrok River unobserved. But he had to make sure not to be discovered by Chinese officials because they send North Koreans right back where they came from where, if they’re lucky, they end up in a labor camp and if they’re not they are executed as traitors.
Park made it through China. In the border region he was helped by members of the Korean-Chinese ethnic group known as Joseonjok. During the day, he slept in hideouts, and at night he walked as far away from the border as he could get. In the fall he got work as a harvest hand. In the southern part of China, he worked for several years on University of Yunnan construction sites before continuing further south.
In Laos, all his savings were stolen off him – which meant he had to beg to survive, sleep rough. Desperate, he stole a fishing boat one night and rowed across the Mekong River to Thailand. He begged his way to Bangkok where the South Korean embassy organized accommodation for him, and after nearly another year of waiting he was finally flown to Seoul.
Park’s “trip of death” lasted a little bit longer than usual: most last between ten months to a year, following the same route via China and Southeast Asian countries although some opt to go via Russia or the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. But whichever way they travel, the long flight is full of risk, all the way.
There is the constant fear of being denounced to authorities. Women particularly all too often become victims of sexual abuse. Yet from 2006 to 2012, between 2,000 and 3,000 North Koreans made it to South Korea every year. Last year, however, the North Koreans tightened controls along the border with China, thus reducing the flow of refugees seeking a new home in South Korea to 1,500.
Disinterest and prejudice
Although the refugees seek a new home, that’s not necessarily what they find. What Park found when he finally reached the land of his dreams – disinterest and prejudice – shocked him deeply. He doesn’t know which was worse. "They are completely indifferent," he says about South Koreans. "They live their own lives, they couldn’t care less about the North." He wasn’t expecting that. He thought people would be interested in him, as someone who put his life on the line to come South.
The first job Park found in South Korea was as an assistant janitor. After a few days, his boss expressed relief that his new helper turned out not to be as “aggressive” as he’d feared. Many South Koreans take their lead from the behavior of North Korean leaders and assume that all North Koreans are bellicose – a prejudice that is only encouraged by the fact that, when speaking, North Koreans have accents they perceive as hard.
In general, North Korean refugees don’t enjoy much of a good reputation in the South. Most of them find menial jobs – they can forget whatever it was they learned in the North (Park had studied biology). Twelve percent are unemployed (in 2012, the unemployment rate in South Korea was an estimated 3.8%). According to a study, one in ten of the North Korean refugees has had trouble with the law in South Korea. One in nine female refugees in South Korea has been sexually harassed or raped, and a third are said to have prostituted themselves at least once. Sixty percent of all new arrivals prefer not to reveal their origins.
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A scale model of the border between South and North Korea - Photo: Kate Nevens
There is a very popular dating reality show on Korean TV called SBS Jjak. One episode that aired about a year and half ago threw a revealing light on the way North Korean refugees are perceived by South Koreans. A pretty young woman had become the absolute favorite of the men on the show. In tears, she confided that she’d left something important out of her biography: her North Korean past. All the men then lost interest in her, except for a poor farmer’s son.
Park – despite money he received when he arrived, and a generous state subsidy to help him integrate into South Korean society that works out to the equivalent of nearly 30,000 euros – says he still doesn’t feel completely accepted in his new homeland. Yes, he acknowledges, "I can say what I want and make my own decisions." But he hasn’t yet been able to forge deeper links within South Korean society.
Five years ago, together with some other North Korean refugees, he formed NK Intellectual Solidarity (NKIS), which helps North Koreans integrate. The NKIS also puts relevant information about living in the South together for North Koreans who are thinking of making the “trip of death” and smuggles the USB sticks into North Korea.
Park Kun-ha has also found great personal happiness in South Korea – he’s remarried. Like him, his new wife is a refugee from the North.