An estimated 30,000 North Korean defectors live in South Korea today, according to the South Korean government. After defectors arrive, the government trains them in social customs and job skills, and gives resettlement payments to assist with housing and education costs. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Karla Murthy looks at several of their stories.
KARLA MURTHY: Twenty six year old Park Young Ho runs this food truck at a horse racetrack just outside Seoul, the capital of South Korea. With race fans streaming in all day, he’s well positioned to sell his sandwiches.
PARK YOUNG HO: I sold about 200 sandwiches on Friday, 300 on Saturday, 500 on Sunday.
KARLA MURTHY: Despite the ups and downs of the food business, Park enjoys the work- and is optimistic about the future. But 15 years ago, his life was very different. Park spent his childhood across the border in North Korea where a repressive totalitarian regime deprives its people of freedom and food.
PARK YOUNG HO: We left North Korea, because we didn’t have enough food. I didn’t have any food eat for a week and I got really sick. My brother saw that and convinced me and my dad that we would all die unless we left the country. So I can imagine I might have been dead by now if we didn’t come here.
KARLA MURTHY: When Park was 11, he fled with his 19-year-old brother through China into Thailand and finally, South Korea. They resettled in Seoul, where their lives changed dramatically.
PARK YOUNG HO: When I first got here, it struck me the various, wide kinds of food that I had not seen in the north. So many kinds.
KARLA MURTHY: But Park had a hard time adjusting to his new life. Because he didn’t know how to read or write at first, he was teased in school. He caught up and graduated high school. Now, he’s in college majoring in business and running his food truck on the weekends.
PARK YOUNG HO: Hopefully, it will become then 10 trucks, then 100 trucks. I would like to try all different types of food trucks. Also I would like to continue working with my friends, young people.
KARLA MURTHY: Park got help starting his food truck business from a South Korean government program that aids defectors. Grants from its corporate partners covered the startup costs of his truck.
The food truck phenomenon has only come to South Korea in the last couple of years, after the government lifted a ban due to safety and sanitation concerns. Now there are over 100 food trucks like these operating in the country and these two are owned by North Korean defectors.
Kim Kyong Bin sells meat kebabs and snacks in this food truck. Despite the freedom and better quality of life, she says adjusting to South Korea was a challenge.
KIM KYONG BIN: When you say you are from the north, people treat you differently, like an outsider. Also they might look down on you a bit. That was difficult – trying to be like a South Korean, so that you can be treated fairly.
KARLA MURTHY: Kim and her husband are among the estimated 30-thousand North Korean defectors living in South Korea today, according to the South Korean government. After defectors arrive, the government trains them in social customs and job skills…and gives resettlement payments to assist with housing and education costs. Park hopes one day North Koreans like him will be able to enjoy the liberties he has found in South Korea.
PARK YOUNG HO: In the north you’re not even allowed to visit neighboring villages freely, even if you have money. You have to ask for permits from the government and you’re allowed to travel only on certain dates. We are the generation to prepare for the unification of the Koreas.