A Dinner With Defectors

By Jay McNair

I work in the Resettlement Support Division of the MOU; our department oversees various aspects of integration of North Koreans into South Korean society, including supervising the resettlement centers, monitoring North Koreans as they integrate, and deciding whether refugees with criminal backgrounds are entitled to citizenship or not. Obviously the work is very important, and the vibe in our division is quite busy and serious. Arthur (another intern in my department) and I joke that everyone is too busy to talk to us, but it’s kind of true. The phones ring constantly. Other workers in the MOU, when we share what department we’re working with, say, “Ah, the Resettlement Support Division. Very busy there, right?”

Because everyone is so busy, they often stay at the office well into the night; and, of course, they occasionally go out to dinner together. One day Arthur and I were invited to a dinner the department was hosting for some North Korean university students. There were five of them, all girls (about 75% of North Korean defectors these days are female[1]), and we had a great dinner together, with seafood pancakes, and kimchi, and boiled pork, and soybean soup, and pungent raw fish (probably the most difficult taste I’ve encountered in my life). And other things, most of which actually tasted quite good (like the seaweed soup, which was made of fine thin strands of seaweed, like eating mermaid hair. It looked about like seaweed often looks, viz., not particularly appetizing, but actually had a deliciously complex, smoky flavor).

Obviously, though, what we ate wasn’t really the important thing; as usual, it was the people that mattered. At first I thought the students from North Korea would be completely alien, impossible to connect to, but as we got to know them they seemed just like regular college-aged Korean girls. And all individuals—they didn’t conform to some typecast North Korean standard. The same mix of personalities you find everywhere, some quiet and shy, some dominant and loud and unafraid of our department head. The same indefinable Koreanness you find in all Korean students. A strong bond between them all was all that I noticed that might set them apart; other than that, little sign of their dark pasts. They were happy and open the way young people are.

At first I was afraid of treating them as refugees, of defining them by their past, and so I was afraid of asking questions about their life in North Korean and the process of leaving it. At one point the department head said that surely I must have questions I’d like to ask. He practically ordered me to ask something. And the girls chimed in with willing assent, since they’d been asking us questions about the US all night (they were all part of a program about to spend two months in northern Virginia studying and doing internships). But I still felt awkward about it, of treating a friendly dinner like an interview for a magazine profile, and so I claimed shyness and asked nothing. And I was happy with my choice; I loved learning about these girls without the crutch and limitation of knowing their whole histories. And so instead of being stuck thinking of them as refugees, to me they were just people like me. And I got to know them through eye contact, through smiling, through our attempts to connect across the language barrier. That sort of thing.

Anyway, whatever I learned from those things, it is difficult to express here. Just the sense that they are ordinary girls. That their past hasn’t changed them too much. That people, especially young people, are adaptable, resilient.

After dinner we walked outside into the summer night. The MOU employees headed back to the office for a few more hours of work, and us young ‘uns headed for the subway stations. But we realized that none of us were tired or busy that night, and so I convinced two students, Min and Lia[2], to join me for an after-dinner coffee on our way to the subway stop; and so we sat at the coffee shop talking, for what seemed like a very long time.

And there, in an otherwise empty coffee shop outside the Royal Palace, I heard their stories. They told me about their hometowns: one, a small town in the mountains; another, a big city on the coast. About their families. Min left a younger sister behind; Lia was the middle child, and left both her younger and older siblings, along with the rest of her family. For some reason that was the most painful for me to imagine, the middle sister leaving; it seemed less rational, less predictable, than the oldest leaving first or the youngest getting to leave. Harder to explain to the sisters who had to stay behind.

I asked what they missed from North Korea, and they missed their friends; they missed their family; they missed their old teachers. But they didn’t really get my question, because there was nothing about the country itself that they missed.

They both left North Korea because of education, because their families wanted it for them and because they wanted it for themselves. They were ones who studied hard in school, and read books, and wanted more than anything to go to university. Lia was reading her textbooks one night in her house when her father stormed in, angry. I imagined him looming over her in the dark room; she was afraid and uncertain what he might do. She said he swept up the books she was reading and walked across the room and threw them into the fire, out of control, furious with himself that he couldn’t give his daughter the education that she wanted so badly.

That irrational, violently emotional act spoke to me deeply.

Soon enough after that, Lia’s parents sent her away and she crossed the border into China with her uncle, and made the long overland journey to Thailand and eventually by plane to South Korea. Min followed a similar path a few years later; and not too long after that, there we were drinking coffee outside the Royal Palace.

Once I stood alone on a beach on an island off of New Caledonia, finishing the last Book of the New Sun on the forsaken Baie des Rouleaux: the afternoon lengthening as the cruise ship departed, taking its huge presence away from the island like something inevitable, until I was the only person I could be sure of in that part of the world. I read with a fervent power and frenzy to take it all in, but worried I was missing something by hurrying. And then I was finished, and the sunset came, and I stood in the surf looking out at the sun sinking past the breaking waves, thinking about how unlikely it had to have been for me to ever end up in this particular place and position in the world: in this particular spot on an abandoned beach at the far end of the world, with the rollers crashing in, stooped slightly over (because my heels were sinking in the sand faster than my toes), hands in my pockets. How impossibly unlikely, and yet there I was somehow.

Unlikely things happen all the time; and this is reassuring to me. Lia’s and Min’s stories are surely more unlikely than mine. They both made it across the border out of North Korea. And they made it through China, though thousands of other North Koreans are arrested and deported back to North Korea every year. And they made it to South Korea, where they learned to lose their North Korean accents and studied English and made it into South Korean universities, though their parents will probably never know.

And so, as dark as their pasts were, their lives seem to me in the end to be stories of success. Theirs is obviously a tale unrepresentative of the vast majority of North Korean lives. But still, to me, their lives offer a hope that we are not bound by our pasts, that life can be unpredictable in a good way; and that despite the severity of the suffering in North Korea, life there too can change for the better, as improbable, as unlikely as it may seem.


[1] This remarkable overbalance of women is a result of many interrelated factors, but our understanding is that it’s mainly due to the attractiveness of women to the illegal broker network in China—the main pipeline for refugees—many of whom are sold or forced into relationships with Chinese men against the threat of deportation. China deports all North Korean defectors it finds back to North Korea, where they face months or years in jail for the treason of leaving.

[2] These are not their real names.

2 thoughts on “A Dinner With Defectors

  1. Jay McNair,
    What an interesting blog! Glad you followed up the “formal” dinner with a casual chat, and learned more about those girls.

  2. Pingback: Researching Refugees | MOU OneKorea

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