Soundbites from North Korean Refugees

Reflections from a trip to Seoul, South Korea 

By Annie Cheng 


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hroughout the week, our Yale International Relations Association (YIRA) sponsored group met with numerous people with incredible stories: defectors, NGO founders, changemakers, government employees. Every one was dedicated to the cause, passionate about focusing on improving the human rights situation in North Korea.

A couple days ago, we visited the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and experienced briefings by the United Nations Command and the R.O.K-U.S. joint military. We stepped into the infamous blue complexes, under the gaze of a team of hardened guards. These buildings, meant for peace talks, haven’t been used for anything  but tourism since August 2015. North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test a year later.

The tripartite forces who we met today showed me exactly how serious of a threat the country is to international security, but speaking with the defectors demonstrated the extreme lack of basic respect for humanity in North Korea.

I came to South Korea with little knowledge on the conflict—I, like many other Americans, was seasoned by the media to believe that North Korea wasn’t a serious concern. The more I learned, the more this statement ceased to contain validity. Speaking to the refugees and dedicated peoples of the cause solidified the genuine threat of North Korea in terms of both human rights and global security. There is no voice. There is no freedom of marriage, of residency, of personhood let alone political dissent.

“People think about North Koreans as people only in poor conditions, but look at us, we’re regular people too.”

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] spoke to entrepreneurs, to service workers, to university students—all people who had the same dreams as any other South Korean would. Although economic growth is stifled in North Korea due to increasing sanctions and strict government oversight, there is still room for innovation. Homegrown capitalistic ventures have turned into unstoppable markets. Hundreds of stalls form jangmadangs and encourage access to foreign cultural artifacts, such as South Korean dramas and American films. The more informed the populace is, the more they realize their own capacity for genuine individual progress and success under more democratic circumstances.

“The talk about the [North Korean] regime and the people need to be separated for constructive discussion.”

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his potent statement, by a university student, demands attention for human rights violations to be focused on singularly. North Korean discourse often focuses on global security threats of the government, blanketing the civilian population as brainwashed. Discussions on the government’s nuclear policy and anti-Western attitude should never replace or negate the extent of state brutality towards its own citizens.

“My dad said to survive you have to just work with the system.”

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he lack of humanity demonstrated by the Pyongyang government results in the citizen necessity of adapting to a highly restricted environment. Escaping is incredibly dangerous, and open dissent is unheard of. The military has closed eyes on everybody, and the society breeds snitching; those with information use it as a means to get a few more grains of rice to feed their families. The culture of distrust establishes a weak collective identity and a negative perspective towards the government, especially by the youth who have been exposed to the outside world through aforementioned jangmadang goods. Unfortunately, even those with grievances must grit their teeth in order to live.

“I lived in a sheltered environment in Pyongyang, but Father decided to defect with the whole family…I am the only one who made it…I work hard because I know how much my father wanted this.”

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter defection, adapting to South Korean society poses a meaningful challenge as well. The narrow scope of North Korean education along with lack of individual expression and choice limits the ability of defectors to easily transition. They must learn a few thousand more English-borrowed phrases, understand the nuances of capitalistic exchange such as accounting and credit cards, and adjust to social disparities in verbal and nonverbal communication.

Although each defector’s story showcased plenty of hardship, most admirable was the ability of their spirits to overcome trauma and reclaim their right to a humane life.

As I stood at the edge of the platform overlooking the DMZ, I watched the North Korean flag waving in the wind. This week has been illuminating and vital to my understanding of the Korean peninsula. North Korea is more than just propaganda and bombastic leadership, more than just punchlines. It is the home to millions of people deprived of the opportunity to exercise personal ideas and success. Today, I feel both grateful and undeserving—I was born into freedom but they are forced to chase it.

*Quotes have been translated from Korean and anonymized


Annie Cheng is a freshman in Ezra Stiles college. Contact her at