Week 33: N. Korean Refugees

Week 33: N. Korean Refugees

I’m back with Hacker Paradise, the organization I’ve been in an on-and-off travel relationship with since May. You know, the one that plans trips for digital nomads so we can all kick up our feet (not really), relax (not really), and drink margaritas (this one is a really).

Not really, because although HP is great and relaxation was the norm during our Greece trip, East Asia ain’t no relaxing place. Not even Jeju. Read my spider post.

Jimjilbangs are another story though. They’re relaxing.

While I feel a greater affinity for Korea than Japan #noapologies, this place is in a precarious area. Not that the whole world isn’t a conflict zone.

*goes into existential soliloquoy*

Seoul is close to North Korea. The demilitarized zone (DMZ) is 2.5 miles in width and stretches all the way across the Korean peninsula. It buffers the border on each side, and the closest point to us is about an hour away by car. We visit the DMZ the day after I arrive from Jeju, and the place is intense.

The visitation alone requires a designated bus, a passport on hand, a dress code, and a serious demeanor. You have to wear close-toed shoes in case you need to run for your life.


On the way from Seoul, we stop several times for South Korean security guards to check our documentation. We have to go with a registered tour agency. There are no civilians within the DMZ except, oddly, the residents of two farming villages, one on each side of the border.

Well, let me qualify that. The residents of one farming village. To live in this particular South Korean village, one must descend from a local family. They do not own their land.

The North Korean village is not exactly a farm village because, although manicured fields surrounding it suggest that people live there, they don’t. It’s fake. The place is fake. The North Korean goverment calls it Peace Village, but everyone else calls it Propoganda Village, as it’s widely speculated that this is a front set up by North Korea.

This area of the DMZ is the site of the only North Korean escape over the Korea-Korea border: just last year, a North Korean soldier defected into the southern territory. We visit the Joint Security Area (JSA) of the DMZ, and in the visitor’s center watch the video captured by security cameras.

The recording dates to November of last year. In it, the soldier runs, jumps in a government jeep, the jeep stalls in mud, he jumps out, runs, is shot, and makes it across the border. The other guards start to run after him, but, realizing they will make the deadly mistake of crossing the border into enemy territory, they retreat.

The soldier lies wounded on the safe side of a low wall, and a South Korean soldier waits until night to rescue him, crawling slowly along the wall in the dark. The defector survives and lives in South Korea under an unknown identity.

All other escapes besides this one happen over the Chinese border.


The closest we come to North Korea is inside one of the famous three blue UN buildings. These tiny buildings straddle the border, and we go inside the middle one, the MAC conference room. Since we’re in a UN building our crossover doesn’t count as entering the other Korea, but it does happen: while inside we do traverse the border that appears outside the window.

You can see that clear halfway demarcation in this picture taken from the southern side.


But now, a few weeks later, we have an opportunity that provides raw insight into North Korean life: seven North Korean refugees are participating in an English-speaking competition. An organization called Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) does just that. They teach North Korean refugees through a volunteer program.

When (and if) the refugees feel ready, they can participate in a biannual English speaking contest that gives them the opportunity to speak for ten minutes. There are seven of them in this summer’s rendition. Some escaped a decade ago; some, a few months back.

Aside from a girl in her 30s who bribed her way through for $2000 (now the cost is around $9000) a few years ago, they don’t mention their escapes. They do talk about life in the Northern country.

The first speaker is a male. He was born in 1991 #representbrother. He paints the starkest picture of them all: his parents were arrested, and at the ages of 7 and 9 he and his brother moved to a child labor camp. At this camp, two to five wheelbarrows came every day to pick up the dead bodies of children who starved. Read it again. Every day, two to five wheelbarrows full of dead children were carted off from this place.

Don't Move

Another girl describes typical problems in her math textbooks. This is how they learn mathematics: “There are 5 U.S. soldiers. We kill 3. How many are there left to kill?” She seems to have had a privileged - but by no means easy - upbringing, and we learn from another girl that there are 3 levels of society. It’s hard to move down, easy to move up.

They recount the birthdays of their former leaders faster than they recount their own. This is goverment-infused reverence; most citizens, even while in North Korea, understand that foreigners aren’t evil enemies and that their leaders aren’t close to being gods.

I deeply appreciate this opportunity to hear directly from these people. Although their identities may not be fully revealed, they are in a safe environment and speak openly.

Even if an American were to tour North Korea, these excursions must be accompanied by two designated national tour guides. These two North Korean blokes make sure their country is portrayed in a glorious light. It’s rare to hear what I’m hearing from former residents of this enigma of a country.

Other facts:

  • The divide between the two countries happened in a day, so many Southern citizens never heard from relatives again.

  • Both Koreas speak the same language, but their accents are slightly different.

  • South Koreans usually refer to their country as plain old Korea.

  • No interaction is allowed between North Koreans and foreigners on tours.

  • North Koreans are sometimes allowed to tour the DMZ from their side, but even if their schedule overlaps with the South Korean side, there is no interaction between the two.


Note: these pictures, aside from the one capturing DMZ’s Joint Security Area, are pictures taken in and of South Korea. I did not have a camera at the JSA or the refugee event. Although these pictures were taken on a day I was playing with a film camera in Seoul, I’ve included them because, to me, they evoke a sense of borders, immobility, and longing.

Week 34: Film Photography

Week 34: Film Photography

Week 32: Couchsurfing

Week 32: Couchsurfing