The Secret World Of North Korean Defectors

Behind the tales of bravery and the dreams of a better life lies a haunting reality. The journey of North Korean defectors, marked by perilous escapes and courageous aspirations, is far from the end of their struggles. As they step into the embrace of South Korea, a complex web of challenges awaits, often concealed beneath the surface of their remarkable narratives. In the shadows of celebrated stories, a symphony of frustrations and unmet expectations echo through the hearts of defectors, urging us to unveil the hidden truth.

The Secret World Of North Korean Defectors

Life of North Korean Defectors

In the shadows of North Korea’s iron grip, a courageous woman known only as “C” embarked on a clandestine journey into a forbidden world. Smuggled television shows became her lifeline, offering a tantalizing glimpse into an alternate existence across the border.

In the hermit nation, possessing foreign materials is a dangerous game, punishable by the harshest measures. Yet, undeterred, C surreptitiously devoured South Korean broadcasts, captivated by the stark contrast of what she called a “different reality” beyond her grasp.

“South Korea,” she whispered, her voice filled with longing, “a realm of wealth and guaranteed human rights.”

In the face of tightening borders and an increasingly arduous life, C made her escape in 2019. A daring odyssey led her through the labyrinthine streets of neighboring China, ultimately steering her towards the luminous promise of South Korea. There, within the confines of a government-run sanctuary known as Hanawon, C finds solace and preparation for the life that awaits her.

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All defectors who seek refuge in South Korea must pass through the crucible of Hanawon, a sacred institution that serves as both a sanctuary and a classroom. For three transformative months, defectors are immersed in a comprehensive curriculum, forging a path towards assimilation into their new society. From unraveling the tapestry of history and culture to mastering vocational skills and even mundane tasks such as grocery shopping, Hanawon unveils a realm vastly divergent from the isolated and destitute home they left behind.

On a rare occasion, C opened up to the world, granting journalists an extraordinary glimpse into the hallowed halls of Hanawon. Concealing their true identities, she and her fellow defectors revealed fragments of their extraordinary narratives. C, though apprehensive about the profound dissimilarities between her past and present, radiated an unwavering optimism and resolute determination.

“With unyielding determination, I devote myself to learning,” she shared, her eyes ablaze with the promise of a newfound existence. “Believing that diligence begets success, I navigate the labyrinth of life in South Korea, guided by the teachings of Hanawon.”

Within the walls of Hanawon, a profound metamorphosis takes shape. Defectors shed the shackles of their past, embracing a vibrant tapestry of possibilities. Behind closed doors, secrets unfold, and lives rewrite their destinies.

A Hanawon instructor in an IT education center for North Korean defectors on July 10, 2023.

Unveiling the Secrets

Behind the veil of hope and transformation at Hanawon lies a truth that casts a shadow on the journey of North Korean defectors. Not all who emerge from the facility feel emboldened or adequately equipped for the path that lies ahead. This realization has ignited a call for a radical reimagining of the system from activists who argue that it is sorely in need of an overhaul.

Upon crossing the border into South Korea, defectors are thrust into a labyrinthine process. The National Intelligence Service (NIS) subjects them to extensive security checks, a necessary measure to weed out potential North Korean spies lurking among the hopeful arrivals. Once cleared, the defectors find themselves ushered into the halls of Hanawon, where they are mandated to spend an additional three months—an unyielding half-year confined within the clutches of government facilities.

This approach, once seen as a safeguard, has come under scrutiny, labeled as archaic and counterproductive. Sokeel Park, South Korea country director for the international nonprofit Liberty in North Korea (LINK), which aids North Koreans in their resettlement, raises a poignant question: “Isn’t it ironic that North Korean refugees risk their lives to escape the extreme control of their government, only to find themselves subjected to the oppressive grip of a South Korean system that fails to serve their interests or respect their agency?”

The shackles of excessive government control persist, stifling the very freedom these brave souls sought to obtain. The duration of confinement, the rigidity of the process, and the stringent oversight overshadow the potential for empowerment and hinder the defectors’ ability to fully integrate into society.

The voices of discontent grow louder, echoing through the corridors of activism. Advocates argue for a paradigm shift that upholds the principles of liberty and empowerment, urging authorities to reevaluate the stifling bureaucracy that confines defectors within a web of control. The time has come for a metamorphosis, where freedom and agency take center stage, allowing these courageous individuals to truly flourish as they embark on their extraordinary journey of rebirth.

A security guard stands outside Hanawon in Anseong, South Korea, on May 28, 2009.

What happens at Hanawon Facility

Nestled in the serene landscapes, approximately 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of the bustling capital, Seoul, lies the main Hanawon facility—a gateway to a world of transformation for North Korean defectors. Within its vocational education and training center, these brave individuals are presented with a myriad of possibilities, with 22 distinct job training options predominantly focused on blue-collar work.

Hanawon, more than just a sanctuary, endeavors to acquaint defectors with the nuances of South Korean life. They are encouraged to immerse themselves in the enchanting melodies of popular ’90s music and current hits, creating an intricate thread of connection that weaves them into the cultural fabric of their new peers. Through this harmonious exploration, defectors begin to unravel the mysteries of a world they once only glimpsed from afar.

In a different classroom, an IT instructor imparts practical knowledge, guiding students through the intricacies of the copy-paste function. Their fingertips dance across the keys, practicing the rhythmic typing of the lyrics to South Korea’s national anthem—an homage to the unification of their past and present, bridging the divide with each keystroke.

However, as CNN embarked on a visit to Hanawon, a sense of emptiness filled the air. Most classrooms stood devoid of eager learners, bearing witness to the impact of pandemic restrictions and heightened border security in North Korea and China. The number of defectors, once reaching nearly 3,000 annually, dwindled to a mere few dozen in the years 2021 and 2022. Yet, amidst the quietude, the spirit of resilience perseveres, as these courageous individuals continue their quest for a better life.

Beyond the realm of education, Hanawon’s training encompasses essential life skills, empowering defectors to navigate the intricate landscape of their new existence. From unraveling the mysteries of bureaucracy to the intricacies of opening a bank account, each lesson becomes a stepping stone toward independence and self-sufficiency.

Upon completion of the rigorous program, defectors emerge, triumphant and equipped with newfound knowledge. The government extends a helping hand, offering vital support in the form of initial subsidies and housing assistance. As they step into the embrace of their new lives, the shadows of the past fade away, replaced by the infinite possibilities that lie before them.

Hanawon—a haven of resilience and renewal—provides the defectors with the tools to forge their own destinies. In this extraordinary journey of transformation, the indomitable spirit of the human soul triumphs, defying the odds and embracing a future brimming with hope.

A Hanawon instructor (left) teaches defectors in a bakery class on July 10, 2023.

Beyond the Facade

Despite its noble intentions, Hanawon has left some defectors feeling disillusioned and ill-prepared for the challenges of the real world. Their frustrations echo through the halls, resonating with the disheartened voices of those who have walked the path before them.

Kim, a defector who fled in 2017 and completed his Hanawon training in 2018, expressed his discontent, stating, “Hanawon was meant to equip me with practical skills, but instead, I was taught nonsensical things.” While certain lessons, such as mastering modern technology, proved helpful, others left him baffled. He recalls reading a book that explained how to plate a ring with gold—an endeavor that seemed utterly disconnected from the reality he faced.

During a recent visit by CNN, Hanawon officials acknowledged the need for change and emphasized a shift towards predominantly vocational training. Unification Minister Kwon Young-se articulated the importance of empowering defectors with the tools necessary for their survival in South Korea. He emphasized the adage, “Teach someone how to fish rather than give them fish,” highlighting the necessity for job-oriented training and guidance to navigate the complexities of the South Korean system.

While some defectors, like the unidentified women “A” and “B,” found the training beneficial and appreciated the resettlement funds, there remains a pervasive skepticism among others. Kim’s skepticism resonates with a broader sentiment shared by other defectors, as voiced by Sokeel Park, the country director of LINK. Advocates and experts have echoed these concerns for years, emphasizing the need for comprehensive mental health care and long-term support to aid defectors on their arduous journey of resettlement.

The disillusionment lingers, beckoning a reevaluation of Hanawon’s approach. A deeper focus on practical skills and robust support systems can alleviate the frustrations and instill a sense of empowerment within those who seek refuge within its walls. It is through collective efforts, empathy, and a commitment to holistic assistance that the true potential of defectors can be realized, guiding them towards a future filled with resilience, hope, and the fulfillment of their aspirations.

North Korean defectors attend a computer class at the Hanawon facility on July 10, 2023.

A Patchwork of Realities

One of the inherent challenges of the Hanawon approach is the stark diversity within North Korea itself. Life experiences vary greatly depending on the region and social status. Residents in the capital, Pyongyang, may have a semblance of modern luxuries, such as access to education, limited internet, and certain amenities, in stark contrast to those in impoverished areas. This disparity in background complicates the standardized approach taken by Hanawon, highlighting the need for tailored assistance that acknowledges the individual needs and experiences of defectors.

Furthermore, the experiences of defectors like C, who spend years in China before reaching South Korea, further underscore the importance of flexible and adaptable support systems. The additional time and exposure to a different way of life provide them with an opportunity to adjust and gain work experience, setting them apart from those who arrive directly from North Korea.

Sokeel Park emphasizes the necessity of providing tailored assistance based on individual circumstances rather than imposing a uniform set of requirements and training on all defectors. The current approach often renders certain classes ineffective, as many defectors end up pursuing careers in different fields or harboring broader ambitions beyond the blue-collar focus of Hanawon. Younger North Koreans, in particular, may aspire to internships, higher education, and white-collar careers.

The psychological toll of the rigorous vetting process endured at both the NIS and Hanawon cannot be overlooked. Defectors arrive in South Korea brimming with hope and expectations, only to have their excitement drained over the course of their time in Hanawon. The burden of these heightened expectations, combined with the challenges of adapting to a new culture and societal norms, takes a toll on their mental well-being.

As CNN seeks comment from Hanawon officials, it becomes clear that a comprehensive reevaluation of the approach is necessary. The establishment of tailored assistance programs, taking into account individual needs and aspirations, as well as prioritizing mental health support, can serve as a beacon of hope for defectors. By embracing a more flexible and compassionate approach, Hanawon can fulfill its mission of empowering defectors to not only survive but thrive in their new lives, rekindling the flame of hope that once burned so brightly within them.

Fostering Community Support

The voices of defectors and activists resonate in a call for streamlining the Hanawon process, recognizing the need for a more efficient and adaptive approach. Kim, the defector who fled in 2017, advocates for a swift settlement, emphasizing the importance of earning a living sooner and making breakthroughs while adapting to the new environment. The sentiment underscores the desire for a more seamless transition, enabling defectors to integrate into society and navigate the challenges they face with greater ease.

When questioned about the remote location of Hanawon, Minister Kwon cited defectors’ potential nervousness around new people as a reason for the isolated facility. The intention was to provide a gradual exposure, expanding their comfort zone over time. While this approach aims to ease the transition, challenges remain, as Kim admits. The embarrassment he feels when unable to communicate common items in stores and the cultural differences he encounters, such as greeting coworkers each morning, highlight the intricacies of adjusting to South Korean life.

The difficulties of post-defection life have been well-documented, with tragic cases that have deeply impacted the public consciousness. Instances of starvation and isolation, resulting in devastating outcomes, serve as painful reminders of the complex challenges defectors face. Financial struggles persist, with a significant proportion of defectors remaining unemployed years after their arrival in South Korea, surpassing the national unemployment rate.

Sokeel Park suggests that many of these challenges can be addressed more effectively through community-based support. Local centers that offer continuous assistance and foster a sense of camaraderie can play a vital role in providing ongoing support to defectors. By expanding the reach of these centers and transforming some of the services provided by Hanawon into optional local classes, defectors can receive tailored support and mitigate the problem of isolation resulting from being cut off from loved ones in North Korea.

The journey of North Korean defectors should not end with their arrival in South Korea; it should mark the beginning of a new chapter. They deserve the chance to shape their lives on their own terms, embracing the freedom they risked everything to attain. Through a comprehensive reimagining of the support system, the creation of a more streamlined process, and the strengthening of community-based assistance, defectors can embark on a future where their resilience is honored and their aspirations are nurtured.

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