North Koreans, living in a ‘communist’ country, learn only negative things about ‘capitalist’ South Korea. The country is characterised as a place where, because of the extreme divide between the rich and the poor, beggars fill the streets and people everywhere are dying of starvation.
Many North Korean refugees starting their new lives in South Korea are thus full of anxiety about the capitalism they will encounter. But after a time of assimilation, some of them come to say, “South Korea is actually more like a communist country.”
What on earth do they mean by this?
Choi Ji-yeon* is a North Korean refugee who has just settled into South Korean society. She describes to us her first visit to her younger sister, who was already in South Korea. Seeing unopened bags of rice and fresh food in her sister’s kitchen – and, especially, milk in her refrigerator – Choi asked, “Where did you get so much milk?”
The sister explained how the food was provided by the local clinic for pregnant women, and that seaweed, potatoes, and other foods that pregnant women need were provided free of charge.
Choi was astonished. She tells us, “I thought that since South Korea is a capitalist country, I would have to buy everything with my own money. Seeing that the country provides basic essentials, I learned that South Korea is actually more of a communist country than the North.”
Of course, Choi’s sister receives benefits because she is a low-income pregnant woman. Choi was perhaps mistaken in thinking that all South Korean women receive such benefits. But even this example of the South Korean welfare system was enough to undo the misinformation she’d been given in North Korea about the nature of capitalist societies.
North Korean exiles say that when brokers in China tell them, “If you go to South Korea, the country gives you a house, gives you a stipend, and provides you with things you need,” they were doubtful, asking themselves, “Isn’t that a lie?”
Lee Young-joon*, who left North Korea five years ago, tells us, “I once wondered, ‘Why would they [South Korea] be so good to us, when we have not lifted a finger to help the development of their country?’
“In the end,” he explains, “I had to come round to the understanding that South Korea is a much more generous country than what we had been told.”
This isn’t to say capitalism or South Korea is perfect: far from it, and many North Koreans know this from experience.
But the ordinary things that the rest of the world takes so much for granted seem amazing to a North Korean. In the North, the state demands more from an individual than perhaps any other state on earth, but guarantees very little in return. The majority of North Koreans are forced to fend for themselves; only the most privileged receive any benefit from the state – despite what the DPRK claims.
Choi tells us, “As soon as I can, I want to tell my family the truth.”