[Hankyoreh-In] North Korean defectors’ American Dream

Posted on : 2012-01-23 15:53 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Defectors heading to US realize dashed hopes of a promised land

By Song Gyung-hwa

Lee Jang-gil (assumed name, 24) washes dishes at a restaurant. On June 18, 2011, he got home late at 11 o’clock and immediately dialed 911. His mother was lying on the floor bleeding. Fire engines, police cars, and an ambulance arrived to the house on South Clinton Avenue in Rochester, New York. Police discovered that Lee’s father had hanged himself in the attic. The North Korean defector, 54, had stabbed his North Korean defector wife, 48, during a quarrel and then killed himself.


A Father who crossed the line

Jang-gil lost both his parents that night, just two years after arriving in the United States. Since then he has been drinking day and night. His brother, Myeong-gil (assumed name, 22) is now seeing a counselor. In early August, we managed to meet Jang-gil in Rochester, though he kept his mouth shut whenever the incident was mentioned, electing only to talk about the hardships his family had to go through.

They fled from North Korea, where three of Jang-gil’s brothers starved to death. His father’s dream was to send his remaining two sons to college. In 1998, his father left his hometown, Yanggangdo, to cross the border. He was caught by Chinese authorities and forced to return to North Korea, though. He escaped from North Korea three times over a period of 10 years, then finally brought his wife and two sons to Yanbian, China.

They headed to Laos, a tiny Southeast Asian country 4,500 kilometers away, in October 2008. With fake IDs, they changed trains and buses and walked across mountains, with the father saying to his sons, “Let’s live a good life in a country that Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il called a ‘mortal enemy.’” After being granted refugee status in June 2009, Lee’s family caught a flight to the United States.   

Worse than starvation: The reality awaiting them in the “promised land”

In the United States, everyone in the family worked. His mother worked in a garment factory and the brothers in a fish store. Jang-gil’s father had difficulty adapting to his new surroundings. He kept changing jobs, from an eye glass factory to a laundromat to a fish store. His English didn’t improve either. He and his wife started fighting quite often. A Korean-American in Rochester remembers the father, Mr. Lee, saying, “My family and other Koreans, everybody alienates me.”

As of 2011, more than 400 North Korean defectors were living in the United States. That number has increased rapidly over the last five years. Last year, for example, 1,194 North Koreans chose the United States and Europe as their final destination for refugee status or exile, while 2,376 chose South Korea. In other words, one in three North Korean defectors is heading to countries other than South Korea. The number increases when taking into account those who went to the other nations through South Korea. In fact, the United States has emerged as the main destination for North Korean defectors since 2006. However, life in this faraway country is never easy. With Jang-gil’s parents, for example, they died before ever getting to see their American dream fulfilled.  

U.S. admits North Korean refugees because “South Korea is dangerous and discriminating”

In 2007, Jang-gil’s family was finally able to escape North Korea after three previous attempts. They lived in a mud hut which was used to raise dogs and pigs when a Korean-Chinese person let them in. For meals, Jang-gil’s mother cooked rice in the same pot that boiled the dogs’ food. They heard unsettling rumors about South Korea that if they went to South Korea, their remaining family members in the North would be in danger and that South Koreans were very discriminatory. But they heard some good things about other countries, such as that Western nations had better social welfare systems.

For a long time, North Korean defectors preferred to go to Europe. In the early 2000s, European nations took in quite a number of North Korean defectors as refugees. Some went to Britain, others to Germany. Some moved to Europe via South Korea. That started to change in the mid-2000s when the British government caught a South Korean trying to defect as a North Korean and raised the bar for refugees. The United States, however, passed the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004 to allow for the immigration of more North Korean defectors. Since then, more North Koreans have been choosing the United States as a final destination.

“My life will be in danger if I have to return to North Korea. Please, grant me refugee status.” Lee had to go through more than 10 interviews, including immigration and refugee determination sessions, until eventually being allowed into the United States in June 2009. North Koreans know well that you have to say “my life is in danger” in order to pass the refugee interview at the UNHCR. With Lee, they asked him at the U.S. Embassy in Laos every time he was interviewed, “Why do you want to go to the United States and not South Korea?” Lee’s answer was always the same: “Is America not the most powerful and the greatest country in the world?”

The minute they set foot in the “greatest country in the world,” they went into debt. They had to pay back $5,000 just for the flight to the U.S. They paid back a total of 140 dollars every month. Financial aid was minimal, with food stamps only being redeemed at designated stores and their rent set at $200-400 for the first 3 months.


Limited government support and broker’s commission means debt-saddled defectors start a new life as day laborers

North Korean defectors come to the United States with the aid of brokers, many of whom are Chinese-Korean, South Korean or overseas Koreans. This takes money. Jang-gil’s family was given assistance by a Korean mission to cover their initial costs. However, many don’t get that kind of help, including Bae Kyeong-sik (assumed name, 41) a North Korean defector who came to the U.S. with his wife in 2007.

He has been paying back $6,000 dollars in brokerage fees since arriving. In addition to the cost of the flight, which the U.S. government paid for, he has other debt and is in no position to say no to any menial job. Although he graduated from college as an engineer in North Korea, the only job he could get was that of checking motor parts at a factory in Seattle, where mostly Hispanic and Asian laborers work for $7 an hour.

The “cost of defection” is the first obstacle to overcome in a new country, a tough reality Jang-gil’s family knew nothing about. The information they got was insufficient to say the least. People said things like, Britain is becoming more difficult to get into; Canada has free medical care; you can earn as much as you work in the United States, a land of opportunity. The family had lived all their lives in rural North Korea and then hid from the police in China. The only information they were able to come across was through word of mouth from other North Korean defectors.

Amid these rumors, they came across the “American Dream.” They were attracted to this country where they could make real money, unlike in South Korea where defectors are given deposit money for rent and about 20 million won ($17,605). There’s one rumor that says the American government gives 10 times as much as the Korean government does.

Different information leads to different destinations. Many who go to the U.S. through South Korea head for Los Angeles, where many Koreans live. Those who head directly to the States often settle in cities throughout New York state.  

Leaving one life of hardship for more hardship

A North Korean defector who helped Jang-gil’s family settle in New York remembers a conversation he had with the father. He said to Mr. Lee complaining about the hard work, “After overcoming all those difficulties in China, you have to survive adversity here.”

“But it should be different now.” Mr. Lee couldn’t understand why in the United States he should go through the same level of poverty that he’d suffered in North Korea and China.

Mr. Lee was put into a concentration camp and released after being arrested by Chinese authorities and sent back to North Korea. He often said proudly, “I survived even after I was dumped and left emaciated.” A neighbor of his, another North Korean defector, says, “He seemed to think that he was able to make up for all the hardship once he set foot in the United States.”

Mr. Lee wouldn’t have even been able to get even a low paying job without the help of a Korean church there, as a Korean they met in church introduced the family to another Korean who ran a nearby fish shop. That’s how Jang-gil’s family found work initially. Korean churches are critical for North Korean defectors overseas. Loosing this connection can be fatal.

Won Man-ho (assumed name, 51) arrived in New York last year. He ended up losing the only money he had to another North Korean, who lured him into a scam. Penniless, it was the church that saved him, getting him work at a Korean supermarket. To Mr. Won, the Korean church is a support mechanism and he couldn’t imagine getting by without it.

An automobile engineer in North Korea, he never thought he’d have to worry about getting a job in the U.S. because he had a specialized skill. Unfortunately, no one was willing to hire him because he couldn’t speak English. Even among overseas Koreans, North Koreans are treated differently. When North Korean defectors ask for the same wage as South Koreans, they’re asked, “Why so expensive?”


No English, lowest wages

It’s not easy to overcome language barriers. As Lee Jang-gil said, “My grandfather went from South to North Korea for the sake of revolution after liberation. My family is from South Korea and my father escaped to China, but that was like a death sentence to a successful career. I just gave up and quit studying.”

It was not until he arrived in the U.S. and entered an English language institution for refugees that he learned the English alphabet. He took classes with other refugees from India, Nepal, and Somalia. But it was just a beginner’s course and he’ll have to teach himself more advanced English if he has any chance of getting into university.

Jang-gil’s father, however, couldn’t overcome the language barrier. While his sons made friends with Americans and his wife started to mingle with neighbors, he talked less and less. Steve Kim, who works with 318 Partners Mission Foundation, still remembers what Mr. Lee said when he arrived at Rochester airport: “You don’t need to spend money on me anymore. I’ll learn English and meet Americans and go on to make a lot of money.”

Mr. Kim goes on to say, “He was the most independent North Korean defector I knew.” Still, as someone in his fifties, his English didn’t improve as much as he’d hoped. This meant he could neither meet Americans nor make a lot of money. He continued working at one Korean store after another. As Mr. Lee would often say to his family, “When I work at a Korean store, it makes me jealous.”

With no social safety net in place and no communities to attach themselves to, North Korean defectors in the United States end up making extreme choices. Since the U.S. adopted the North Korean Human Rights Act, six North Koreans have immigrated to America with refugee status. One of them committed suicide last April. Kim Gi-ho (assumed name, 36) was torn between a Korean mission and a North Korean defectors group, and ended up hanging himself at home in Flushing, New York. Since arriving in the U.S. four years prior, he’d done nothing but odd jobs at supermarkets.


Some make extreme choices, losing themselves and their Families

There has been no conclusive research on how deep the isolation and frustration run among North Koreans in the United States. “The death of Mr. and Mrs. Lee is a lesson for all of us. They might seem quiet and unassuming, but every North Korean living here is having a hard time of it and require counseling,” said Steve Kim, who played a role in helping Lee’s family immigrate to the United States.

Lee Jang-gil organized the funeral with the help of a Korean church and some other people. Now it’s just he and his brother left. Some of his relatives are living in South Korea. His grandfather, who is married with two children, returned to the North to raise his family, but has since returned to the South.

Jang-gil dreams of visiting South Korea to meet them. He’d also like to visit the DMZ. Six of his friends from his hometown in Yanggangdo are in the North Korean army. “Two of them starved to death and one escaped. I’ve heard nothing about the one who escaped since then, though,” Lee explains. “I want to ask why North and South Korea are cut off from each other like this.”

That’s still a distant dream. For the time being, his goal is to get out of Rochester. There are a few North Korean defectors in Richmond, Virginia. He plans to move there to learn how to fix cars, make some money and go to university. His brother, who is still receiving counseling, decided to stay in Rochester. They had to part from each other but had no choice. As Lee puts it, “I can’t stay here anymore. I want to forget everything and start anew.”

Please direct questions or comments to [englishhani@hani.co.kr]

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