'The lifestyle is brutal': North Korean defectors take risky journey out and fear for family left behind

Several thousand North Koreans try to defect every year, but only about 1,500 routinely make it to South Korea, where the transition to a new life isn’t always easy, Saša Petricic writes from Seoul.

Transition to life in South Korea can be difficult but government offers help

North Korean defector Choi Seong-guk draws cartoons to convey life in the North and the challenges defectors face when they move to the South. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

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. He 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.

"The North is an artificial world," he says. "You have to hide your feelings and the truth. The lifestyle is brutal … it's absurd. I had to get out."

He escaped north through China, following a route of more than 8,000 kilometres to end up living on the outskirts of Seoul, only 80 kilometres from the heavily fortified and impassable North Korean border.

Today, he communicates his impressions of life in the North — and the challenges of defecting to the South — in a series of popular online cartoons.

Dark and light

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.

"You're gonna pay," says the thug.

'You will often be victimized by louder and stronger people,” says a cartoon by defector Choi Seong-guk, as a young man is threatened by a character who looks like North Korean leader Kim Jung-un. 'You’re gonna pay,' he says.

In other lighter scenes, Yong-chul tries to navigate the protocols of South Korean text messaging.

He mistakes routine friendliness from a female acquaintance for what would be unusually intimate conversation in North Korea and ends up proposing to her.

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. 

Cracked down hard

Several thousand try every year, but normally only about 1,500 make it to South Korea, according to government statistics in the South.

That number dropped abruptly by almost 13 per cent in the first eight months of this year as North Korea and China cracked down hard. China doesn't recognize them as legitimate refugees and routinely sends them back.

"Entire families sit in Chinese prisons for months, separated and afraid of what awaits them when they get back," says Choi.

Cheong-Suk Ryang, 36, a defector from North Korea, sits in her cell while waiting to be interviewed at the Chiang Saen police station in Thailand's Chiang Rai province on May 9, 2007. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

A United Nations Human Rights Commission report in 2014 found that upon return, North Korea "systematically" subjects them to "gross human rights violations," including persecution, torture and prolonged arbitrary detention.

The trip usually starts with bribes to officials and payments to brokers who help defectors leave. They take their chances crossing rivers and mountains by foot.

There's even an underground railway — a network of safe houses through China — designed to dodge authorities. The lucky ones make it to Laos, Myanmar or Thailand and on to Seoul with the help of NGOs, Christian groups and South Korean diplomats abroad.

A North Korean soldier looks through binoculars on the Yalu River in Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong, on May 1, 2016. (Jacky Chen/Reuters)

The government in the South offers more help once they arrive. There is a modest allowance of about $1,000 a month as well as grants of up to $20,000 for things like a down payment on a house.

The transition isn't always an easy one. North and South Koreans are close in kinship and they share a language and cultural roots. But after more than half a century of growing apart and living in such different worlds, getting here is just the beginning.

Tutoring to boost skills

Defectors go through several months of socialization at government centres, and often they need classes to reach South Korean levels of education.

NGOs like the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights offer tutoring in English, math and other skills needed in a competitive market economy.

Tutors help North Korean defectors improve their English and math skills in order to find jobs in the competitive South Korean economy. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

But no matter how much they feel at home in the South, most still worry about the people they left behind, especially when there are threats of "total destruction" flying between Pyongyang and Washington every day and news of missile tests and underground nuclear explosions.

"I hear that and I think, 'There goes Kim Jong-un again!' " Park Sungae says between classes at a Seoul university.

She's studying journalism after defecting with her parents nine years ago. Many of her relatives still live in the North, cut off from even a phone call.

"My big dream is to see my broken family again," she says. "But I can't go back. For the regime there, I'm a traitor and they'll kill me."

She worries about the toll all this is taking on ordinary North Koreans, the economic hardship resulting from tighter and tighter international sanctions and from money diverted for a costly weapons program.

North Korean defector Park Sungae is studying to be a journalist at a Seoul university. 'I can’t go back,' she says. 'For the regime I’m a traitor and they’ll kill me.' (Saša Petricic/CBC)

"I keep thinking what a waste of money that is. How many people could they feed for the price of one missile?" Park says.

She doesn't see anything changing soon. At best, many defectors hope that as their community here grows, there will be a natural mixing of Koreans and a convergence of interests too powerful for political differences to ignore.

"Maybe in 20 or 30 years," she says, "we can have a peaceful reunification, like Germany."


Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.