Compassion for defectorsAfter her grandparents left North Korea for the South during the Korean War, she and her parents were exiled from Pyongyang to the remote Ryanggang Province. In October 1997, she and her four-month-old son escaped North Korea and settled in Seoul. She has since worked as a hotel maid earning 500,000 won ($442) per month, as an insurance planner with a solid record and a restaurateur.
She went to school, received her master’s degree, ran as a proportional representation candidate for a legislative post and became the first North Korean defector to earn a doctorate in South Korea. She has supported young and female defectors, opened an institute that studies North Korean cuisine and even taught at university.
This is a summary of the career of the defector Lee Ae-ran, who received an International Women of Courage award from the U.S. State Department. The life of this 46-year-old has been a series of challenges, in the face of which she refused to give up. In the North, she was discriminated against for being from a bad social class, and in the South, she had to deal with the stigma of being a defector. And Lee’s journey through these obstacles is so stirring it sends chills down our spines. We applaud Lee for her brilliant accomplishments.
There are other successful North Korean defectors here aside from Lee. Given that there are about 20,000 defectors today, perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
But the reason we do see their successes in a new light is that stereotypes and discrimination against defectors still exist today. Lee said that while trying to find work soon after settling here, she was rejected numerous times simply because she had defected from North Korea.
In particular, young defectors are often treated as outcasts by fellow students who grew up in the South. The parents of students who have defected are reluctant to meet with teachers, and these young defectors run into problems. That’s a shame. North Korean defectors indeed receive more protection than other foreign immigrants. But that doesn’t justify our discrimination and prejudice against defectors.
In an interview two years ago, Lee said, “Defectors must work hard and be solid citizens because if they cause problems, South Koreans may hope the Koreas never reunite.”
Lee then added, “Just as a mother needs a great deal of patience and love before a child grows up and makes her happy, I hope [South Korea] has more understanding and trust for North Korean defectors as they become partners in society.”