“I’m Ashamed of My Mom”

North Korean defector children learning at school. Image: ROK Ministry of Unification’s UniTV

“I’m ashamed of my mom!” shouted an elementary school daughter to her mother, who was about to meet her homeroom teacher.

The child, burdened with the lingering stigma of her North Korean-born mother, uttered words that would leave lasting scars on both their souls.

Those heartbreaking words had been stirring within the child’s young heart, and they finally erupted in a shameful outburst. 

Due to the stigmatization of North Korean defectors in South Korea, the defectors often try to conceal their identities and blend into South Korean society.

When two North Korean defectors were surveyed in May 2018 by Yonsei University’s “Friends of Unification,” one of them concealed their North Korean roots.

There are also some North Korean defectors who find it more comfortable to introduce themselves as Korean-Chinese (ethnically Korean people from China) in the workplace.

Some South Koreans are also reluctant to reveal that they are dating a North Korean defector.

It has been about 15 years since North Korean defectors began to find their place in South Korean society, so younger generations with at least one North Korean-born parent are starting to grapple with the complexities of their identities and sources of shame as they grow up in South Korea.

Why is this the case?

The answer is multifaceted. They may be haunted by the grim images of North Korea’s dictatorships, nuclear weapons, persistent food shortages, recurring famines, and widespread poverty.

Others are traumatized by their harrowing experiences during the defection process, or ashamed about the negative perceptions that may arise due to various mistakes made during the resettlement process in South Korea. 

All of these factors have undoubtedly influenced how North Korean defectors are viewed, especially in South Korea, where North Korean defectors are frequently perceived as less polished individuals.

Some South Koreans become bewildered when they encounter North Korean defectors who don’t fit this stereotype, and they often say, “You don’t seem like a North Korean defector at all!”

I still find it hard to determine whether this is a compliment or an insult.

That kind of “common perception” has painted a portrait of North Korean defectors that’s thickly coated with society’s expectations and desires.

In this portrait, there is resentment toward their impoverished compatriots, empty phrases like “Unification First” or “Bridge to Unification,” and even suspicions of spies and communists.

A bold signature in crimson ink is affixed to the lower left corner of this portrait, and it constantly sends a message to society: “This is what North Korean defectors are like.” 

However, after examining this “common” portrait more closely, people will soon realize how unreasonable it is.

Assuming that all North Korean defectors have the same characteristics simply because North Korea is their homeland is overly simplistic and misleading. 

Sadly, some North Korean defectors and their children have accepted this distorted image as their self-portrait and strive to distance themselves from it, like the girl who uttered, “I’m ashamed of my mom!”

Perhaps this cry is the struggle of a young soul who doesn’t want to face the glaring Scarlet Letter of that image. 

As a North Korean defector, I feel like I can never truly escape from the stereotypes and negative perceptions of North Koreans, yet I believe my generation of North Korean defectors has a responsibility to heal not only ourselves but also the wounded souls of our children.

To accomplish this challenging and pivotal endeavor, we have to address the fundamental reasons that North Korean defectors have become a source of shame.

Our Twisted Narratives

North Korean defectors have many stories to tell.

News related to North Korean defectors is produced in almost real-time, and the harrowing defection stories of those who escaped hell are translated into multiple languages, while long-running TV entertainment programs share the stories of North Korean women.

However, the narratives of North Korean defectors in South Korean society are distorted. 

These narratives can be divided into two categories.

One category is the scenario presented by the North Korean government, labeling them as “traitors or betrayers,” and the other is the widely accepted  “escape from hell” narrative promoted by South Korea and the international community.

In both cases, the image of North Korean defectors has been distorted by being contracted or expanded, with no room for the more nuanced portrayal of North Korean defectors as ordinary human beings.

North Korea’s regime depicts North Korean defectors as inhuman “traitors to the nation” and “socialist betrayers” who have abandoned their parents, siblings, and homeland in a heartless manner.

Even excluding the sensationalized propaganda, terms like “parents, siblings, and homeland” are enough to burden North Korean defectors with guilt. 

This strategy by the North Korean government seems to have found some traction among certain segments of South Korean society. But is it really so?

Who would willingly risk their lives to leave behind their parents, siblings, and homeland with no hope of ever meeting them again?

All North Korean defectors are survivors of a shipwreck, and the captain of this shipwreck is well-known to the readers. 

The story of North Korean defectors is not the commonly propagated story of an “escape from a wicked empire,” it’s a victorious struggle of common people tossed into the merciless waves of fate, a story of survival.

Is this really a shameful story? Perhaps some of us are still ensnared by the North Korean regime’s brainwashing.

There is another, more serious aspect to this story. How does the media portray North Korean defectors?

What kinds of stories and information are available in entertainment and news sources, including the comments section of news articles?

You can find assassins, murderers, spies, victims of human trafficking, beggars, and lawless individuals who engage in illegal protests and violent acts. 

You can also find the invincible heroes of escape stories who emerge from the gates of hell and North Korean women who are eternally grateful to be in the Republic of Korea.

The North Korean defectors portrayed there say what the audience wants to hear.

The audience’s expectations, disappointments, and anger serve as excellent control mechanisms to keep the participants in the dynamic drama of the capitalist media world from straying too far.

As a result, North Korean defectors who encounter these fragmented images through the media internalize the shame the media portrays, and we can even become averse to well-received entertainment programs related to North Korean defectors.

We have been sprinkling our self-image with ink without owning our story, turning it into mere curiosity or entertainment fodder for the media.

Now is the time for us to transform our shame into pride by creating and sharing our own stories. Through these stories, we should reveal our true selves, including our joys, sorrows, anger, and happiness.

We should talk about our strengths and weaknesses, pride and shame, our lives in the past, and our hopes for the future. 

To achieve this, we all need to become storytellers for ourselves, our children, and for a better world.

It doesn’t matter if our stories are rough around the edges; as long as it’s a relatable human story, it’s enough. Let’s start with our own stories if we don’t know what to talk about. 

Let’s openly reminisce about our hometown, even if it was a small hill; at least it’s where our memories are etched.

Let’s share stories about the small creek by our hometown where the sound of water was soothing, and let’s tell the story of our struggles and triumphs in life’s trials and tribulations.

Rather than accepting the “shameful stories” created by society, let’s work toward a day when our children, raised on the authentic tales of life that their parents shared, can proudly say, “My mom is amazing!”

Following in their parents’ footsteps, they will grow up to write their own stories that may sometimes be rugged but filled with the harshness and beauty of life, sometimes moving, and always genuine.

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