By Dan Rivers, CNN
November 18, 2009 7:32 a.m. EST
Seoul, South Korea (CNN) -- They've escaped the most repressive regime in
the world, but for many North Korean refugees, life outside their closed, totalitarian
country is still not easy.
According to the South Korean government, some 17,000 refugees have made
the perilous journey from North to South Korea, often via a tortuous route that
takes in China, Laos and Thailand.
But Joanna Hosaniak, from the Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights
said the refugees often arrive with warped expectations, increasingly based
on watching smuggled copies of South Korean soap operas.
"North Koreans, when they watch those DVDs they assume that 'wow south
Koreans are living in such a nice country, they have such a beautiful apartments
they drive a Mercedes Benz, and so on'," she said.
"So it's very simple they come here and they think this is just like
that, and it isn't."
The reality is low-paid jobs, discrimination and often alienation.
We visited one factory near Seoul, where 80 percent of the workforce are
North Koreans, making cardboard boxes. They work long hours, in freezing winter
temperatures, for low pay. And these are the lucky ones.
Many simply can't find jobs at all, lacking even the most basic skills. Many
are shunned because of their North Korean accents and perceived backwards attitudes.
One woman, who didn't want to give her name for fear of reprisals against
her family in the North, told how she arrived three years ago. She left the
North to earn more money, and while she is now financially better off in the
south, she's paid a price, leaving behind her two sons and feeling the pressure
of having to survive in a market economy.
"In North Korea, all you need to do is go to work and stand there for
eight hours, but here you need to really make an effort to survive. When everyone
else here takes one step forward, I feel like we need to take two and that puts
a lot of pressure on me," she said.
North Korean refugees who make it to the South, are put through a government
reorientation system designed to equip them for life outside a totalitarian
state. Just a simple trip to a supermarket can present them with freedoms, choices
and problems they'd never imagined in the North. In the North, permission is
needed for all but the most local travel. Food choices are extremely limited.
"Many can't understand why they are so many brands of cheese or noodles
here when in the North there is just one, which few can afford to buy,"
According to Hosaniak, standards of education in the North are so poor, many
adults don't even have the most basic mathematical, reading and writing skills.
The church group Durihana Association offers aid to North Korean defectors.
It runs a small school, giving refugees a back-to-basics education. In small
classrooms, small groups of students take their very first steps in learning
English or using a computer, something that is a rare privilege in the north.
"When you explain what the Internet is and what you can do with it,
they have no idea, because they only have one TV channel, things like that.
It's really mind-blowing," said teacher Ko Han.
"Suddenly they are thrown into one of the most high-tech, wired cities
in the world and many can't cope."
One refugee said: "I left my parents, brothers and sisters behind. With
each change of season, I miss them more and more, whether its raining, or snowing,
I'm thinking of them."
Homesick and struggling to adjust to a new life, which is far from the one