North Korean defectors speak out

North Korean defectors Kyung Sik Yoon and Jin Hee Seo in South Korea.

CBS News

By Jimin Lee, CBS News Investigative Unit Intern

Jin Hee Seo remembers standing in the freezing cold on the banks of the Tumen River at the border of North Korea and China.

"I was only 15 and I had to cross the river on a snowy winter day. I climbed onto the back of my brother as he swam across to China," she said.

Seo is one of an increasing number of North Koreans who are fleeing an isolated, impoverished North Korea to start new lives in South Korea's bustling cities where they face culture shock, unemployment and often depression.

The number of defectors is sharply rising. In 1999 there were just 150 but last year nearly 3,000 North Koreans crossed the border according to South Korean government statistics. Today there are an estimated 20,000 North Koreans living in South Korea.

More than 70 percent of the defectors are women according to the Unification Ministry in South Korea.

"Women in the North are less social. It allows them to avoid government supervision and plot their escape discretely," said Henry Song, a director at the Defense Forum Foundation in Virginia.

Two defectors, Seo and 30-year-old Kyung Sik Yoon told CBS News of their escape via Skype from a new coffee shop called Bliss and Bless in Seoul where they both work. They did not want to use the webcam or their real names for security reasons.

In North Korea Yoon said he had never used the internet.

"There is no such thing like the Internet. People suffer from the shortage of electronic supply," he said.

At school, Yoon said he was taught to believe that the United States was his lifelong enemy.

"North Koreans call Americans 'Yang Ko Bak Ee' to make fun of their appearances. They have long noses," Yoon said laughing. "We were taught that 'Yang Ko Bak Ee should be killed'," he added.

Yoon said a glitch in technology accidentally exposed him to the outside world and prompted him to defect. He turned on the TV one night expecting to watch a North Korean broadcast promoting the country's worship of Kim Jung Il known as "Juche idealism."

"TV documentaries are on mainly to educate," Yoon said, "It makes you believe that North Korea is the best country in the world."

But that night instead of a documentary, his television picked up a signal from a South Korean television station. He saw pictures of glamorous South Korean buildings and realized that his image of South Korea was false.

The signal was too weak for him to watch the entire program, but that night he decided to leave home.

Yoon said he now feels lucky to be in South Korea, "The idea of communism is great where everyone is equal, however, it's totally different depending on who your leader is," he said.

Seo left North Korea when she was still in junior high school where she said she was taught that South Koreans sell eyes, organs and blood for money and that Americans and South Koreans lived in homelessness and poverty. But she said her mother told her what she learned in school was not all true.

"In class, we don't learn about the wars that occurred in the world or what happened in Europe or Africa. They only teach you about North Korea and its Juche Idea, Kimjungilism," she recalled.

Seo said media reports of severe starvation and public executions in North Korea are true.

"There is no freedom at all. People only do whatever is asked. It's life without faith or meaning," she said.

She said her father defected 14 years before she escaped, leaving her family blacklisted by the government and shunned by neighbors and friends.

"My family bitterly complained that my dad had ruined all of us--which he probably had," she said.

Seo said her family's journey began on a freezing night when they left their home to drive to the border. She said she was not allowed to tell anyone they were leaving and could not say goodbye to her friends.

"Of course, it was very dangerous...If you get caught you will be killed. You should plan it to do it secretly," she said.

A Chinese farmer fishes in the Tumen river, at Qingrong village in northeast China's Jilin province, across from farmland in North Korea on the opposite side Thursday July 4, 1996. Pervasive North Korean security along the river border prevents North Koreans from crossing the river to escape near famine conditions in the isolated communist state.


She said her family paid people to drive them to the River and they paid more other people to help them in China. Later in South Korea she reunited with her father.

Defectors usually make their way to South Korea after crossing the Tumen River, trekking across China to Southeast Asia, where they are taken into custody by the South Korean National Intelligence Service and interviewed for several weeks to determine that they are actual defectors and not spies or Chinese-Koreans. They are then sent to a resettlement center near Seoul where newly-arrived defectors are debriefed for three months of social orientation and given job training. After they graduate from the program they are given financial assistance and released into South Korean society.

Seo and Yoon faced challenges after they arrived in South Korea. Like other defectors they had little money and few skills and struggled to fit in with their heavy accents and conservative clothing. The unemployment rate for defectors is four times higher than the national average and the new freedom can be daunting.

"During the weekend, I don't know how to choose among so many things to do," Yoon said. "In the North, we had to stay home because we didn't have money or even physical energy to move around," Yoon added.

Moreover, he still finds it difficult to make friends or find a girlfriend in the south.

"It's hard to exchange trust with people in a new society. Friends in the north are simple and naive. On the other hand, friends here are more competitive and individualistic," Yoon said.

Many defectors experience psychological problems because of the stress of their new lives. One mental health clinic in Seoul reported a sharp increase in defectors seeking help from 110 in 2007 to 12,979 in 2009 according to the Unification Ministry in South Korea. The suicide rate for defectors is more than two and a half times higher than the ratio for South Korean natives.

Yoon now works as a barista at Bliss and Bless and he said he enjoys working hard and getting paid.

"I got paid almost 1.30 Million Won ($1,500) last month." Yoon said. "I want to be an owner of the next franchise of Bliss and Bless and be an example for the defectors coming to South Korea," Yoon said.

The founder of the cafe, Dong Ho Kim, has made it his mission to hire North Korean defectors to help them settle in their new environment. He hires volunteers from the local community to teach defectors how to make coffee and speak English.

He said more than two thirds of the profit from Bliss and Bless funds local non-profits and is used to support the resettlement of North Koreans.

The manager of Bless and Bliss, Il Hwei Kim, said that the coffee shop also teaches the defectors the economics of their new country.

"It's a strange thing for them to understand that dark bitter water (coffee) is more expensive than a bowl of rice." Kim said.

The real names of the defectors are not being used at their request.