For young defectors, a tough ‘Journey’

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For young defectors, a tough ‘Journey’

The approaching 60th anniversary of the Korean War is generating a slew of memorial events portraying the horror of combat and the human toll of the war.

But a group of young defectors from North Korea are using the anniversary to tell a very different story.

Their South Korean peers see them as people to be pitied, who can’t take care of themselves. Parents frown upon the newcomers being around their children.

In a country they believed would be a dream destination, young North Koreans say they’ve discovered prejudice and fear skewing the public against them and have found it hard to come to terms with their identity, a theme they want to portray in an upcoming memorial event in Seoul.

“Technically, I’m not South Korean,” said Choi Keum-heui, 27, who is participating in the six-day performance and exhibition that opens today in Topohause. “They want me to become South Korean, but can they be American if they go there?”

The event entitled, “Long, Long Journey,” includes a documentary recounting of their defections, a photo exhibition of group trips they’ve taken in search of identity in the South, a set of musical and theater performances, and crafts made of traditional Korean hanji paper.

The participants are current students or graduates of the Set-net School, an alternative program southwest of Seoul that helps young defectors adjust to life in the South. The school opened in 2004 and now has about 30 students.

“In some ways, people take pity on us, thinking we know nothing and can do nothing,” said Choi, who came to the South in 2004 and is currently studying Chinese at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. “That makes us withdraw, hide the fact we came from North Korea.”

Choi says the defectors organized the event with the encouragement of their teachers, who understand the anguish the teenagers have overcome. After crossing the North Korean border, defectors usually spend six months to four years wandering in third countries like China, Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam before finding their way to South Korea.

“Our teachers say how great the experiences we’ve had are,” said Choi. “South Korean children don’t know what starvation is, they think why not have noodles if there’s no food.”

Many defectors are surprised by the economic and social progress South Korea has achieved over the 60 years since the war, such as its protection of rights for the disabled or homosexuals. But understanding life in North Korea seems to be one topic left neglected, Choi said.

“We used to live in a society that doesn’t have competition, but here we always have to compete. We have to live fast,” Choi said. “We need to prop up our confidence to go through this, but the way people look at us just keeps dragging us down.”

The Long, Long Journey, hosted by Set-net, is co-organized by the Korea’s Future Foundation and Germany’s Hanns-Seidel Foundation, which will present a separate photo exhibition chronicling the division and reunification of West and East Germany.

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