Risking The Danger Of Defection In North Korea

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North and South Korea are still officially at war, even though a truce was declared more than 50 years ago. As a result, there are upwards of 22,000 North Korean defectors now living in South Korea. The journey across the heavily guarded border is treacherous and often deadly. It's been just over a month since Kim Jong Un rose to power after his father Kim Jong Il's sudden death and there are some reports of would-be defectors being shot down while trying to flee the impoverished nation. Reporter Doualy Xaykaothao followed a recent defector entering society after six months of "re-education and training" by the South Korean government.


Our next story is about a journey, this one from North Korea to the South. It's a dangerous journey, getting caught is certain death. But once a defector arrives in the South, a new set of challenges await. Reporter Doualy Xaykaothao followed one recent defector as he began his new life.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO, BYLINE: A short man in his 40s walks out of a building that looks more like a prison than a state-run home dedicated to helping North Korean defectors. Kim, who didn't give his full name, wears a dark suit and a new winter jacket. He immediately gets into an unmarked government car. He's visibly anxious, not only because he's meeting foreign journalists for the first time, but because he's about to experience life in a completely different world from the totalitarian state he left behind.

During the long drive, Kim notices there are many more trees in the South. He also mentions the metal rails along the freeway, saying in North Korea, you'd never see such solid infrastructure. He never makes eye contact. And his body language indicates he's uncomfortable. But his wide eyes, staring out the window, suggest he's full of wonder about his new adopted country.

In the last six months, he's been getting essentially de-programmed by the South Korean government, un-learning everything North Korean. To make his transition into South Korean society easier, his friend, Korean-American writer Krys Lee, accompanies him. She first met him nine months ago at a safe house in China before Kim escaped through Southeast Asia and later to Seoul. She volunteers to translate.

KIM: (Foreign language spoken)

KRYS LEE: He's talking about basically just be ready in five years when you have to be fully independent, because you have no support after that. But it was very detailed. I mean he's looking at, like, exactly, like, what month he's going to get a job, like, what, you know, when he's going to study. He's very determined to resettle successfully here.

XAYKAOTHAO: Kim finally arrives in a provincial town and his new home in a collection of grey buildings that look like public housing units in the U.S. Once inside his simple, one-bedroom apartment, there's relief, surprise and joy.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

KIM: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: After Kim's personal effects are left on the kitchen floor, the driver and others leave. Kim then begins to pull out manuals on how to be a good new neighbor, as well as books about local customs. But he has few belongings.

He basically has two bags, one box, and a box of ramen, and a bag of rice that was donated by the National Red Cross of Korea.

The first thing he scrambled for is a pack of smokes. He's finally free, independent of South Korean and North Korean authorities.

KIM: (Foreign language spoken)

LEE: He said, no, I'm not exhausted at all. I wasn't able to sleep at all. Last night, I had so many thoughts. I was thinking about how difficult it had been to come here. And now that I'm here, I really have to live a good life, and how am I supposed to make that happen.

XAYKAOTHAO: After a few more puffs, he says he can't imagine living like this in North Korea. Here, he has privacy, his own balcony, a closet, a kitchen. In the North, he says he was homeless for years, living inside trash dumps. Now, surrounded by the smell of new ivory patterned wallpaper, he hopes to sleep better. But the memory of his kids haunt him.

KIM: (Through translator) The most terrible thing is I wasn't able to bring a photograph of them from the North to here. And so when I was in Hanawon, I even drew a picture of them, and I looked at them and I would cry.

XAYKAOTHAO: Crossing into China from North Korea is too risky for children, and some die trying to escape. Kim explains he's divorced, and chooses not to reveal where he's from because he fears for his family's safety. Around his neck hangs a large ivory cross. He says he doesn't know much about religion, only that the people who helped him escape believe in God. In this moment, he says he's just trying to believe in himself. For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao in Gyeongju Province, South Korea.

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