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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Out of the Shadows

May 8, 2015

Some South Korean residents are revealing a secret past. They’re former North Koreans who have managed to escape the country. They’ve risked everything to find a better life in the South. But they’ve faced prejudice and other difficulties in their new home. This has driven many of them to hide their backgrounds. Now, they’re opening up more and more, even speaking on TV, and the world stage.

NHK World’s Jihae Hwang has the story.

These defectors are speaking about their previous lives on South Korean TV. They come across as happy. Some showcase their musical skills. But the stories they tell about escaping from the North are extremely serious.

One says she got sent to a prison camp where people were living in terrible conditions in the cold. She says their bodies were covered with sores.

Shin Eun-ha has an honest way of speaking that appeals to viewers. She’s become a TV personality. She says she used to worry that South Koreans looked down on defectors from the North. But appearing on TV has helped to change that.

Lee Hyeonseo appeared on the show three years ago. She’s recognized for speaking fluent English and Chinese. She holds monthly meetings for defectors. They exchange news and offer each other help. She also urges the international community to try to improve the North Korean human rights situation.

Lee grew up in a town close to China. She crossed the border in the late 1990s during a food shortage. She was 17 years old, and alone. While in China, she sought asylum to South Korea in 2008. Her new life was not easy. She found modern culture bewildering. A North Korean accent made her a target for discrimination. Lee says she felt like an outsider. It took her a while to adjust. She says she thought South Koreans would welcome defectors from the North, but she was wrong.

Eventually, Lee came to a major turning point in her life. In 2009, she went to Southeast Asia to help her mother and younger brother escape. Lee’s family members feared arrest there. They received help from an Australian tourist. She had a hard time communicating with him in English. It was then that she decided to study the language. She has put all of her energy into mastering English at university. She also joined a networking campaign with the South Korean government to improve the human rights situation in the North.

A global series of nonprofit conferences shined a light on her efforts. Lee spoke about her story, life in the North, and her path to South Korea via China. When her speech was posted on a video-sharing site it got 4 million views. That publicity attracted a request from the New York Times to write about human rights abuses in North Korea. She has also given speeches around the world.

She is now working on an autobiography that will be titled ‘The Girl With Seven Names.’ The book will be published in July. It will be printed in 13 languages. Lee says she believes that by working with other defectors, they can improve the human rights situation in the North.

NHK World’s senior commentator, Kengo Okamoto has been covering the Korean Peninsula for many years and joined Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Beppu: Kengo, the North Korean women in the TV show looked happy to be in the South. But the journey there must have been hard.

Okamoto: Yes, anyone who tries to defect risks their life. Those who get caught end up in a concentration camp. Even those who make it into China are not safe. They have to hide until they leave for their final destinations. The latest survey shows nearly 28,000 North Koreans have defected to the South. More than two-thirds are women. The figures also show the flow of new defectors has fallen by about 40 percent. That’s probably because the North Korean authorities have tightened security and made punishments harsher since Kim Jong Un took power.

Shibuya: How do defectors get treated by the South Korean government?

Okamoto: They get various kinds of help. The first place all defectors go is a national training camp. They spend 3 months learning how to survive in South Korean society. Then they get a housing subsidy worth at least $18,000 a year. But they still have to pay the brokers who helped them get out of the North. The fee used to be about $3,000. But a South Korean expert says it’s now more than $8,000 because of tougher punishments.

Beppu: How can defectors contribute to South Korean society or change the situation in the North?

Okamoto: Some South Koreans are scared of them. They worry that anyone from the North could be a spy. That’s why many defectors hide their identities and keep a low profile. But the women in the TV show we saw in the report say letters from viewers encouraged them to open up about their lives and more and more TV stations in South Korea are starting to air programs about defectors. So perceptions there could change. Of course, the testimonies of people who’ve escaped from North Korea give us an idea of what’s happening there. The people are apparently ratcheting up pressure on Kim’s regime. That’s why North Korean officials try to prevent defectors from speaking in public. I think we should welcome defectors when they share their experiences.