Recent North Korean refugees talk changes in North Korean culture

Wednesday 3rd July, 2013
A stretch of road in North Korea's city of Wonsan in Gangwon Province.

A stretch of road in North Korea’s city of Wonsan in Gangwon Province.

“When I was hanging out with friends, we’d talk about television shows we’d seen the day before or go to an Internet café and play games. We’d also text with girlfriends.”

This comment wasn’t made by a South Korean teenager, but by Kim Ho-jin* (17), who entered South Korean society just last month. He is one of only a handful of North Korean refugees to have come from Kangwon Province.

Ho-jin said that because he lived in a relatively high-altitude region of North Korea, he could easily watch South Korean broadcasts by attaching an extended antenna to the family television.

“There wasn’t a single person among my friends who hadn’t seen a South Korean show. Even if we couldn’t talk about it in public, we talked about it openly when it was just us. My friends and I would copy the way South Korean children played, and that would sometimes even end up with us mimicking a one-hundred-day celebration.” (This is an important landmark for South Koreans, comparable to a first birthday.)

When we asked how it was that he and his friends were able to play online games without an Internet connection, Ho-jin replied, “The computers were connected only to the other computers in the Internet café. We’d just play the games with other kids in the same room.”

According to a statement from Ho-jin’s mother, Kang Soo-Ae*, the culture of North Korean culture is slowly but surely changing, because of South Korean influence. The changes are very apparent among young women, even affecting the way they walk.

“Wearing sneakers and loose clothing, women used to walk around like men. But nowadays, women can buy and wear a wider variety of clothes, and that has resulted in women walking differently from men, in a more conscious and deliberate way. They sometimes imitate female celebrities they’ve seen in South Korean dramas and they giggle and chat about it.”

She says, “If you go to a make-up stall in the local market, it’s set up so that you can try samples, just like in South Korea. As Chinese knock-offs increase, and the competition gets stiffer, sellers are using South Korean business tactics. When it came to more expensive makeup, I tended to look for a favorite brand that I could trust.”

Ho-jin, who escaped during his second year of high school, worries most about learning English. He says, “When I talked to my friends in North Korea, we’d often imitate the English phrases or South Korean accents and idioms we learned from dramas. Now that I’m studying English for real, it’s a little intimidating, but I plan to study hard.”

Ho-jin’s father had complained to a friend about Kim Jong-il, and remarked on how he was planning to go to China. Shortly after, he was dragged off by the state security department, where he died. After that, Ho-jin persuaded his mother that they had to leave, which they
eventually managed to do.

He says said that he came across South Koreans on several occasions in China, when he and his mother were working at a restaurant run by ethnic Koreans by the Amur river.

He describes, “When Chinese people see South Koreans, they use the title “boss” to address the person and treat them really well. That’s what made me want to go to South Korea as soon as we could.”

Nearing the end of the interview, he adds, looking mystified, ”How is it that South Korea has advanced so much and North Korea lives so wretchedly?”

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