Defectors and the search for happiness

Colorful billboards on the street of Seoul at night. (Credit: Diego Mariottini, Courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc.)

“Are you happy? Is life in South Korea more satisfying than in North Korea?”

Ninety percent of the people I meet for the first time ask these questions. When they do, I can infer in their expectant look, their hearts.

“Weren’t things too tough in North Korea? Did you feel welcomed here?”

Complex and subtle emotions bloom in my heart and rise to be expressed, but the words linger, then die on the tip of my tongue. I always says yes.

Am I happy? If material abundance is the condition for happiness, there is no doubt in my answer. But… if anything else counts, I must say I don’t know.

We defectors exist as a distinct new group due to the circumstances of our nation. We are individuals who have fled persecution, hunger, and irrationality in our place of birth. Those who have not experienced the courage and the coexistence of fear and excitement involved in such a choice do not know us.

Many died or were caught on this journey. Some even achieved their dreams. We find ourselves in immigration detention centers permitted to choose where we go. Most choose South Korea.

Why? Because we believe we are one people and that this is where we can heal our wounded hearts.

Everyone hopes to become members of society in a new world and they head to South Korea.

That is how they come to be separately designated as defectors. The fact this separate designation exists implies that we are a subcategory, distinct from the mainstream. This doesn’t just signify a difference in wealth, although we arrive penniless. It also denotes the varied reactions and biases from those around us.

As Korea is a homogeneous nation, small differences are accentuated in a way that makes it difficult for even the slightly different person to smoothly assimilate. Our speech patterns and ways of thinking arouse unwanted curiosity. 

When asked about their hometowns, most defectors around me say they’re Korean-Chinese or from Gangwon, the only Korean province that is itself divided. Very few say “North Korea” and even they would have said nothing if their accent hadn’t given them away. 

I was one among that small number. The first time I mentioned coming from North Korea, the next question that came rushing in was, “Do you know what a taxi is?”

I somewhat regretted being so honest.

I wondered then, What makes us ashamed of our hometowns, of our identities?

Is it these overly excited or awkward reactions when we mention them? Furthermore, what is the reason for claiming to be Korean-Chinese? Perhaps the poverty and hunger that often come to mind when North Korea gets mentioned make us feel ashamed.

Many defectors carry deep hurts. It is for this reason that they find it difficult to dwell on their lives in North Korea. What pride can there be, what honor is there in the time spent and the experience there in that place we fled like escaped prisoners?

The fact of being born in North Korea suddenly feels repugnant. But, because of it, we are classified as a minority.

There is an uncomfortable truth that everyone avoids. It is that no one takes pride in being a North Korean defector.

When defectors talk about needing better human relationships or more advanced social connections, they think of their relationships with South Koreans, not with fellow defectors.

Some believe that the way to integrate into mainstream society is to completely erase their previous identity and leave the defector community behind.

Why do we choose separation instead of community cohesion in this way? We undoubtedly share the same homeland, similar affiliations, and experiences. We have every reason to empathize and unite, but defectors from North Korea do not.

This is a point that requires deep contemplation. Perhaps we want to turn away from the word “North Korea,” from our homeland, our people, our group…everything.

I would say, then, that North Korean defectors are lonely strangers.

Even if they earn money, they can’t easily send it back home, and even if they manage to find a way, they can’t visit themselves. They have no homeland to return to. They live each day as if life ends today. They have no relatives to care about them, no families to hold them close.

Some might think that, as they are earning more money than they did in North Korea, they should be happier. But the value of money does not lie in any comparison with the past. The value of what you have is relative to others. That is why even in an advanced society where basic needs are met, those considered lower on the social ladder will be unhappy until they reach a certain rung. 

Reflecting on this, I ask, Are we sure we are settling in well? Or is our only strategy to dilute the fact of our identity over time? Is that identity something we can’t entirely erase? May our only hope be that our children and their children will escape the subcategory and become mainstream?

Of course, it’s not the case that we all have failed to settle. I’ve seen impressive defectors who become politicians, YouTubers, and social activists. But only a few continue such activities, and even they remain filled with anxiety and have not been able to shake off their problems.

It is natural for those who believe they belong to the minority and feel sidelined to suffer from anxiety. But then I ask, are we not homo sapiens who prioritize the protection of communities?

I would say it is crucial that defectors feel stability within the social network and recognize their usefulness. Such awareness and improvement should start from the individual, extend to the group, and ultimately reach the government level.

As immigrants welcomed into South Korean society, the North Korean defector community requires society’s consideration, taking into account potential side effects they might experience.

What concerns is the government currently contemplating among the various issues faced by North Korean defectors? What measures are being considered to foster harmonious coexistence between locals and North Korean defectors?

From our perspective, solutions should be based on in-depth research and thorough investigation, rather than rushed through like emergency measures, as with the recent establishment of North Korean Defectors’ Day.

Will such a special day truly alter perceptions in society of defectors? It’s a challenge to be optimistic when even defectors themselves have yet to thoroughly examine their own issues and find stability. All change starts from within and extends outward.

It’s been four years since I arrived in South Korea. I haven’t yet received institutional help in achieving mental stability or finding a job.

Despite being young, having a university education, and having family nearby, I find the future daunting. How can people who are weak in all these things adapt well?

I believe that help for this group is urgently needed. It should be continuous and systematic, transcending the influence of inter-Korean relations or partisan politics. We have plenty of reasons to care for each other.

But back to the question. Am I happy, the person asked me. Once again, as always, I answered, “Yes.”

Jang Mi
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