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Former North Korean students, in humanising suffering, tighten diplomatic ties

Jenna* could barely talk about her grandmother. She paused to wipe away tears and catch her breath before tremulously recounting how the woman who raised her had died, having not seen her in years. Jenna had defected from North to South Korea. Her grandmother couldn’t do the same.

People like Jenna bring human faces to North Korean suffering; in this instance, to Sydney. She and four peers recently completed a 30-week intensive English language program, designed to enhance Australia-Korea relations, at UTS Insearch.

The program was also highly beneficial for the students. Its creator, Korea expert and director of the Masters of Not-for-Profit and Community Management Program at UTS, Dr Bronwen Dalton, said speaking proficient English is a ticket to social mobility in South Korea. “Last year’s program paid off, all participants got good jobs in South Korea.”

Funded by scholarships conjointly provided by UTS and the Australian and Korean governments worth $200,000 in total, the program, which is in its second year, is “the most significant government to government program for North Korean refugees,” Dalton advised.

You wouldn’t know the students are from a “gulag posing as a nation“, where dictators’ names are carved into mountains, and mentioning the outside world is forbidden. They resembled average, well-dressed twenty-somethings. Pyongyang-born Jayden*, who wore chinos, white trainers and Harry Potter-style glasses, said he loves the sense of freedom Sydney has afforded him. In South Korea, cultural homogeneity is expected. There’s even a ‘Seoul accent’ that he noticed students from other parts of the country try to imitate.

Ann* had a similarly personal epiphany while abroad. “I’m starting to believe in myself,” she said. Perhaps not feeling like an outsider has given her this confidence, which she’ll need to achieve her dream of working for the UN.

But first, hardship

Chloe*, aged 24, was born in 1994. North Korean leader Kim Il-sung had just died, and left the economy in tatters. A famine had also struck the land, leaving millions malnourished, if not dead. As a young girl, she witnessed people starving on the streets. “My mother saw a woman with her baby, which she couldn’t feed because she herself was starving, so my mother bought her noodles so she could live.” Though the country is now financially thriving, it has a large population of orphans whose parents died of hunger.

Born in Musan near the Chinese border, Ann sometimes had to skip school to help her impoverished family survive. At age 12 she carried sacks of clothes on her back and made several illegal trips across the border to sell them. She is relishing the monetary relief the UTS scholarship has given her. “I don’t worry about money in Sydney. That makes me more happy.”

Post-defection, however, the students’ troubles weren’t over. Discrimination by South Koreans against their Northern counterparts is rife. According to a 2016 study by the government-run Korea Institute for National Unification, around 63 per cent of defectors reported discrimination in the South.

All of the students said they’ve experienced this. Ann was in a book club three or four years ago. When the club organiser’s father found out he was associating with North Koreans, he yelled at him. “It was shocking,” she said. “It was the hardest moment I ever had.” In another instance of discrimination, her North Korean friend fell in love with a South Korean, but his family forbade them from marrying.

Jenna has only ever told one friend where she was from, and not by choice: “South Korean society doesn’t tolerate difference.”

Chloe thinks this discrimination is due to fear. UTS’ Dalton backed this up. She said defectors are discriminated against for the same reasons refugees from anywhere are marginalised: there’s frustration due to the perceived favour they receive (they get housing benefits and resettlement allowances), fear (in this case, that they are spies for the North Korean government), and sheer prejudice.

Jayden, who moved to Seoul around six years ago, is still scared to reveal his identity there. Ideally, he would love to move somewhere where he can be completely anonymous. “I love nature, so I would love to move to a small town in Europe.”

*Names have been changed for security and privacy reasons.

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