214. [Hyesan new bride] Interview of Ms. Kim Yeongok by Lee Naeun
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  Name : HAFS Date : 2017-07-07 오후 5:54:53

Interview of Ms. Kim Yeongok by Lee Naeun

Hyesan new bride

Kim Yeongok is a thirty year old young woman who just married another North Korean refugee. During five years of living in South Korea, she learned and adapted to this whole different society. Without losing her beautiful smile until the last moments of the interview, Yeongok illustrated the dynamics that she experienced throughout her life.

Born and raised in Hyesan, a city near the northern boundary of North Korea, Yeongok was taken to an orphanage run with government funds after her parents passed away; she spent most of her childhood in the orphanage. But the support was insufficient for her to live a comfortable life. In the second grade she had to transfer from regular elementary school to another school where all the orphans in the city were accumulated. From that time on, she attended that school for eight years from elementary through secondary school.

Elementary school classes in North Korea were from 8:00 in the morning to 12:00 noon. Secondary school students held class from 8:00 to 4:00 in the afternoon. From 12pm to 2pm was lunch period and the rest was devoted to class time. There were approximately 40 to 50 students in each class and the ratio of male to female students was nearly equal. Many classes were similar to those in South Korea - such as Korean or Mathematics - but there was a unique subject called "nature." In Nature, students learned about biological creatures and different kinds of herbs and weeds in their surroundings.

Overall, the school atmosphere in North Korea was not different from that of South Korea in 1970s. Teachers were strict and harsh to students; when students did not do required assignments, teachers inflicted corporal punishment to discipline them. Because of extremely strict regulations and punishments, students never thought of violating those rules. So-called 'troublemakers' were never be found in our school because the punishments were so harsh. No one dared to violate the teacher's commands. Despite this harsh environment, the students were allowed some degree of freedom. Yeongok explained that she hung around in groups and played with her best friends in school, which is not different from students in South Korea nowadays.

After school, Yeongok came back to the orphanage and did household chores, such as cooking and drawing water from a well. Some children from wealthy families got private lessons or learned how to play an accordion after school. Yeongok, however, could not afford to take expensive lessons. Government funds were so insufficient that she even had to use worn-out, hand-me-down books because new textbooks were rarely given out.

After ten years of school life, Yeongok became a member of Dolgyukdae (stormtroopers). These North Korean stormtroopers are quite different from normal troopers. Members are not soldiers, but ordinary adults who build houses or repair roads without pay. Not only orphaned workers are required to join, but also others volunteered to do that job in order to become a party member, after spending three years in the troop. While in the troop, Yeongok had a chance to think seriously about her future. Her conclusion was that there would be no opportunities for her if she stayed in North Korea as a trooper. There was nothing for her to lose because she was from an orpahange and she had nothing literally. She wanted to cultivate a future for herself; this inspired her to leave North Korea.

Escaping from North Korea was tough indeed. Along with one of her friends, Yeongok succeeded in crossing the northern border into China. She made her living working as a charwoman for a Chinese family. She still could not live a comfortable life as she did not have an identification card. Since she was an illegal immigrant in China, she was nervous about getting caught all the time, even when she was walking down the street. After spending many uneasy days in China, Yeongok eventually travelled to South Korea via Thailand.

I could get an ID card!

When I asked her, “Why did you end up choosing South Korea as your second home?” Yeongok immediately replied as if the answer were obvious, “I could get an ID card.” South Korea was the only country that considered her and other North Korean refugees as legal citizens and gave them an identification card. In other countries, she would have been regarded as an illegal alien, always anxious about being caught by the government. South Korea was the one and only choice left for her to live a proper and legal life.

As she had expected, life in South Korea was conspicuously different from that in other countries. Her life became more comfortable. She could live with confidence as she had become a citizen of South Korea. She wouldn’t have been able to adapt to the new country, if she had never met Rev. Chun, the Pastor and Principal of Durihana International School. According to Yeongok, Rev. Chun was a generous person who helped her in many ways to adapt to the new environment.

Christianity was the very first religion in Yeongok's life. Previously, she had had no chance to learn or have any religious exposure. Having any religion was strictly banned in North Korea. The only beings that could be treated like gods were Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un - the three-generational Kim regime. Even kindergarteners had had to learn the Juche ideology (deification of the Kims); North Koreans are required to have blind faith in the Kim regime. According to her, most North Koreans were so indoctrinated that they even memorized the birth dates and personal events of all three Kims. These three Kims were holy, sacred beings that no one could dare to criticize.

It was difficult for Yeongok, who had lived in North Korea during most of her life, to abandon this belief and become a Christian. It was possible only thanks to the pastor's unconditional support. She kept thanking him for providing her diverse opportunities in this new land. She appreciated his unconditional help to achieve her dreams and goals. His generosity was the main factor that led her to believe in the existence of Jesus Christ and God and to eventually become a Christian. Wanting to know more about Christianity, Yeongok started to attend church and Mass. She gladly added that she was working hard to become a sincerely devoted Christian.

To study is the easiest!

Introducing Christianity was not the only thing that Rev. Chun did to help Yeongok. As she had postponed her studies for several years, Yeongok dreamed of attending South Korean university to continue her studies. Therefore, the first thing she started after settling in South Korea was to prepare to enter a university. The teachers at Durihana International School had greatly helped her from paper reports to GED test preparations. Thanks to their help, Yeongok would enter her dream school and major in her favorite field - social welfare. She volunteered to work in the Durihana International School kitchen once a week to return what she had received from the Principal and Pastor Chun.

Even though she had been absent from school for several months because of her marriage, Yeongok still wants to study hard and become a social welfare worker. “As I have been through hard times, I believe that I would understand other’s wounds and difficulties.” She dreamed about her future as a social welfare worker. However, despite efforts to understand others sincerely, there were difficulties in establishing friendships among peers at the university; it was easier to study than to make friends. She assumed that the problem was her North Korean accent or her age because she was older than the average student. Yeongok was deeply hurt by those unexpected problems; she still sensed that this problem would not be resolved in a short time. She concluded bitterly that this problem is inevitable between North and South Koreans due to cultural differences.

In this context, I asked her another question. If the two Koreas reunite, do you think that North and South Koreans could blend well? She answered with two simple statements: one, most Koreans want reunification deep down in their hearts and two, the process of blending will be a long and painful one because of actual differences.

Yeongok explained that the overall atmosphere in North Korea regarding reunification is that most North Koreans sincerely want the two Koreas to reunify; they believe that North and South Koreans share the same identity. Confused about some “threats” by North Korea toward South Korea, I asked her to explain. Her answer explained everything: North Koreans actually regard Americans as the enemy. The North Korean animosity of threatening South Korea with ballistic missiles was, not towards South Korea, but towards America. Yeongok said other North Koreans were brainwashed in school to believe that the North and the South can truly reunite once we drive out Americans from the South.

If reunited, the biggest potential social issue would be that all North Koreans would face the same problems that she herself faced as a North Korean defector. Approximately 65 years of separation created inevitable differences between North and South in culture, language, and other fields. “Overcoming problems of those differences is one of the biggest goals of a reunited Korea,” said Yeongok. Narrowing the economic gap between the North and the South will become another area we will need to grapple with in a reunited Korea.

I thanked her for her time answering my questions in a detailed manner. Then we gossiped a little. I was personally curious about her and her hobbies; she replied that her new hobby was cooking. Even though she didn't like to cook in North Korea, she had changed when she learned many diverse recipes after coming to the South. She loved movies and listening to songs. She planned to enjoy contemporary culture now that she had more time after marriage.

Yeongok asked me several things. She was curious about my age; what I was learning; what was I majoring in. I shared that I am a 19-year-old high school student who intends on majoring in journalism. I also confided that she was officially my first interviewee as, prior to her, I had only researched and written articles.

To interview someone like Yeongok was an unforgettable experience. I was fortunate to have Yeongok as my interviewee, a North Korean defector. She generously understood my awkwardness during our interview and kindly answered every question in great detail. She willingly provided anecdotes on issues that might have been uncomfortable for her. She recalled past experiences that might have been too painful for her. I had intentionally avoided mentioning these topics, but I was surprised and thankful that she freely answered them. It was an immense pleasure to interview an individual who had undergone very hard times, times that I dared not to imagine.