Years ago in Yonsa, a small North Korean town close to the border with China, residents gathered to watch a man die. Executioners tied him by his neck, chest and waist to a log in the town square, then shot 90 bullets into him. When it was over, all that remained were two legs.
The man, an executive at a trading company, had been ratted out for illegally cutting down and selling trees into China. When the police came to his property, they found his getaway boat filled with wads of cash. Or so the story goes among locals.
But it was what became of this man’s daughter that haunted 12-year-old Kim So Won. The daughter was tall and beautiful, and she made small but daring fashion statements. “I remember she wore earrings and tight jeans,” says So Won. “And she wore a tight red jacket.” Such adornments were not officially allowed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Rumours circulated that the girl could jump incredible distances; that she could fly across a room. “She was a star.”
Then one day, in 2007, not long after her father had been publicly executed, the daughter vanished. No one ever saw or heard from her again. But So Won would always remember the earrings, the skinny jeans, the red jacket.
The view in every direction from So Won’s home in Yonsa was dominated by mountains dotted with potato plants in autumn and strawberries in spring. The range they called “the gasping mountain” barricaded Yonsa from the Tumen river; in some ways, it felt like a prison wall. Across that water was China and the rest of the world. Being so close to another life, in a way that inland North Koreans were not, was the hardest part.
With two rooms and a plot of land for growing vegetables, the Kims’ home was spacious by North Korean standards. So Won lived with her middle sister, So Yeon, who was three years older, along with their mother and father, an engineer who later became the town drunk. “It was such a waste for him to live in North Korea,” So Won says. “He was always drinking to avoid reality.”
The reality was that North Korea’s system had long ago ceased to function: its economy had stalled, its government was desperate and its people were growing increasingly aware that their lives had changed for the worse. From 1945 – when the Korean peninsula was split by the United States and the Soviet Union following the Japanese occupation and the second world war – until the 1970s, North Korea was the richer of the two nations. The communist North enjoyed better infrastructure and a stronger economy than the democratic South; some Koreans living abroad who had the choice of either country, including So Won’s grandfather, who had long ago moved to Japan, opted to claim citizenship in the North.
But over the following decades, life in North Korea shifted drastically. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 led to the collapse of the economy. A series of floods and droughts culminated in a great famine and economic crisis that came to be known as “the arduous march”, lasting from 1994 to 1998. The famine – along with the regime’s human rights abuses, mismanagement of foreign aid and funnelling of money toward its nuclear programme – starved and killed 330,000 North Koreans, according to conservative estimates.
The system, which had assigned citizens to state jobs and distributed coupons to buy food and other rations at state stores, started to crumble. A new class of workers emerged, often women without official posts to report to who could discreetly find off-the-books employment. Women who lived in the northern reaches of the country sometimes crossed into China.
So Won’s eldest sister, nine years her senior, fled there to do odd jobs when So Won was a small child. Their mother worked there as a caretaker and sent her wages back home. Her time in China changed everything. “She couldn’t stop earning money,” So Won says. She had planned to stay for one month but ended up working for more than a year.
There is a saying that the greatest threat to the Joseon Rodongdang (North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea) is the country’s other “dang” – the jangmadang, or black market.
Growing up, So Won and So Yeon lived out fantasies of better, more extravagant lives through whatever black-market goods they could afford. The country dictates everything, from the propaganda posters hanging in people’s homes to the way they dress. For most North Korean women, the dress code is generally black trousers or skirts, never above the knee, and modest shirts. They are allowed to wear basic make-up (foundation, powder) and, recently, stud earrings, but they cannot dramatically alter their hair, or style it too long or too short.
Mostly, So Won and So Yeon followed the rules and wore their school uniforms of dark pleated skirts with braces over plain white blouses. When they were not in class, they swapped their skirts for black trousers and, for added flair, they ran a hot iron over them until the creases were extra sharp, or tailored them to be slightly more fitted at the hips.
Every once in a while, the sisters would hear that a neighbour had gone to China and smuggled back bags of used clothes. It was a frantic dash to that neighbour’s house, with buyers grabbing a pile, any pile, and paying for it even before they could examine what it contained. So Won and her sister always hoped to find a red jacket and a pair of skinny jeans.
So Won did own a knock-off Adidas tracksuit and black jeans dyed so dark they almost did not look like denim at all. She had to be careful about where she wore them. Inspectors with scissors roamed the town cutting jeans, which were seen as a symbol of American imperialism. Spies were everywhere. So Won’s mother even suspected one of So Won’s friends of being an informant.
One day, So Yeon went to the black market to buy something she had been saving up for. She and her sister had bought perfumes and face creams before, but it was something even more special this time: eye make-up. When she sneaked back into the house, she caught So Won’s gaze.
Sold and separated: the trafficked North Korean women trying to bring their Chinese children ‘home’ to the South
“Come, come, come!” She mouthed the words, her head motioning toward the other room. They hid behind a desk and removed the caps from the make-up stick. One end was a wand with bristles, the other a triangle of black coal. In hushed tones, they painted each other’s lashes and drew around each other’s eyes.
They turned their focus to the glittering eye shadow, looking at it quizzically. What is this? What do we do with it? They were not sure, so they put it away unopened. Then they went outside to play around their house, where no one would see them.
The sisters also bought bootlegged movies and TV shows, which are seen as such an effective catalyst for defection that they are often floated across the Demilitarised Zone between the two Koreas attached to balloons, or bobbed across the sea in bottles.
It was when 49-year-old Kang Mi Jin watched A Promise (1998), a South Korean action-romance film, that she realised her government had lied to her all her life. She had always been taught the South was impoverished, filled with beggars holding out tin cans. But not only was the country depicted as wealthy, the filmmakers could afford to destroy entire sets during fight scenes.
She watched A Promise eight times, enamoured by the amount of money the male protagonist spent on winning his love interest’s heart. “It’s that movie that made me decide to escape,” she says.
So Won and So Yeon’s favourite film was Dream of the Red Chamber (1945), not because of the storyline about a wealthy Chinese family – “It was boring,” says So Won – but because of the beautiful women dressed in even more beautiful clothing. So Won remembers animated features like Cinderella (1950) and Beauty and the Beast (1991) for their “luxurious dresses”, and a Hong Kong movie called So Close (2002), for the smart, tailored trouser suit, glossy hair and meticulously made-up face of the female protagonist, played by Taiwan-born actress and model Shu Qi.
Sitting in their living room with the curtains drawn, they watched every scene, each more glamorous than the last. They marvelled over the endless choice splashed across the screen. They admired the glint of jewellery, the sparkle of make-up. If they someday made it to South Korea, they thought, they would have all those things.
After the great famine, people started fleeing to South Korea in greater numbers. The language used to describe those roughly 31,500 who have resettled in the South is politically complicated. In China, they are “economic migrants”. In the Republic of Korea, among most Koreans, both North and South, they are talbukcha, or “person who escaped the North”. In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, no word exists.
A vast majority of talbukcha – figures from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification say 71 per cent overall – are women. They often escape across the border into China and then make their way to Southeast Asia, where they can officially request protection at a South Korean embassy. If caught in China or communist Laos and Vietnam talbukcha are at risk of repatriation to North Korea, where they will face imprisonment, forced labour, torture or even execution. Few can successfully get to an embassy on their own, so some enlist the help of non-profit or religious rescue groups, while others use brokers, who smuggle them for a fee of anywhere between US$2,500 and US$16,000
On her last morning in North Korea, in 2009, So Won, then 14, woke up early. She and her mother left home without saying a word, even to her father. The only person she said goodbye to was her sister, who had plans to escape later and meet them near Seoul. “I’ll see you soon,” So Won told her.
Two months later, after going through China and then Thailand (So Won’s mother had paid brokers about US$8,000), So Won sat in a sterile room at the South Korean National Intelligence Service in Seoul. She was quarantined, undergoing the routine interrogation to prove she was not an enemy of the state. A man and a woman asked her all about her life in North Korea: “Describe your house. Draw your hometown. Talk about your school. Be specific. Tell us more.”
After the National Intelligence Service came Hanawon, the resettlement centre that handles the intake into the South of North Korean defectors, giving them three months of mandatory citizen training before releasing them into society. They also assign North Koreans a city and accommodation, and show them how to open a bank account, pay bills, shop for necessities, use public transit, go to school and get a job. Talbukcha receive the equivalent of US$6,200 in initial resettlement support paid in allotments (plus US$11,700 to put toward the country’s expensive apartment down-payment requirements) and then a monthly living allowance of about US$380 for the first half year.
After a 12-week course in democracy, capitalism and the ultra-competitive South Korean lifestyle – along with a health screening and some vocational counselling – So Won and her mother were discharged from Hanawon. They were sent to Cheonan, a city about 80km south of Seoul, with a couple bags and a few thousand dollars to their name.
So Won’s first glimpses of South Korean consumerism came as an assault. Dongdaemun Market, in the heart of Seoul, was crowded and chaotic. She worried that she stuck out, that everyone could tell she was a talbukcha. Saleswomen shouted, their words a collection of flattened vowels; they pushed clothing and accessories at her and asked with what seemed like suspicion, “Are you Korean?”
At that time, So Won was chonseureopda, or “a country bumpkin”, she says. “Sometimes I can recognise defectors – like, ‘Oh, they came recently’ – by looking at their outfits. It’s something unnatural, it doesn’t match at all, because North Korean people have no sense of fashion.”
Getting her hair done for the first time was its own form of humiliation. She had dreamed of having long, silky locks, but she did not know where to go. She ended up walking into a cheap miyongshil, or beauty salon, where an older woman straightened her tresses with chemicals that damaged her hair. Buying make-up was even harder. She had no concept of what looked good on her. All she knew was that she wanted to copy South Korean Olympic figure skater Kim Yuna, even if it cost her about US$20 to buy her signature fuchsia lipstick. After leaving the shop, So Won excitedly applied it, only to find it made her look sallow and garish. She never wore it again but was too ashamed to throw it away because it had cost a quarter of her monthly spending budget.
To blend into South Korean life, many women, like So Won, scramble to change their hair, their make-up, their clothing, their accents. “We want to look like ordinary South Koreans,” says So Won. Standing out as North Korean only invites prejudice. There is a widespread stereotype in South Korea that talbukcha are lazy, ignorant, prone to alcoholism and a drain on the welfare state. North Koreans who move south are confronted by a people who are unfathomably foreign. The growing cultural and economic divides also mirror decreasing support for reunification. Older South Koreans remember a time when the two countries were one and treat peace talks with more optimism than their grandchildren. (A majority of the South Korean population viewed unification as necessary in 2017, but among those in their 20s, the proportion was just 38.9 per cent.)
For Kim Ga Young, a 27-year-old North Korean defector who moved to Seoul in 2013, the first step toward assimilation was to dye her hair caramel brown and buy new make-up. It was daunting. At the store, with a seemingly endless array of products all around her, she felt paralysed. “I thought, ‘If I can’t even pick one lipstick, how can I live here?’” Her North Korean friend opened a bottle of nail polish and, not knowing what it was, smeared it across her mouth.
“I thought I was never going to be pretty in South Korea,” says So Won. Still, she did not want to change anything about her face, even when South Koreans suggested double-eyelid surgery, a common procedure, or told her to remove the mole in the middle of her chin. “When I was in North Korea, I never thought I was ugly, but living here made me think I was ugly all the time.”
In the nine years she has been in the South, So Won has lost her North Korean accent. Through a non-profit called Teach North Korean Refugees, she has learned some English. Mostly, she is settled, and yet “I still feel something is missing”, she says. What is missing, of course, is the rest of her family. Last year, So Won heard from old neighbours – who, being close to the border, accessed China’s telecommunications network using a smuggled mobile phone – that her father had died.
Because So Won is divided by an “invisible wall” from her South Korean peers, she mostly sticks to the North Korean community. She has North Korean friends and a North Korean boyfriend. Many talbukcha like So Won end up moving from their placement cities to the greater Seoul area and into neighbourhoods where they can meet other North Koreans, join North Korean groups and eat North Korean foods like injogogibap, a famine-time invention of rice and artificial meat. So Won lives with her mother, who has had a harder time adjusting, as can be the case with older defectors.
“Her mindset is still North Korean,” So Won says. She cannot shake her North Korean accent, either.
Though South Korea can feel like an unaccepting place, So Won enjoys as much of it as she can for the sake of her sister. It was in her second year in South Korea that So Won realised her sister would not be joining her. She and her mother had been getting updates, also via a smuggled mobile phone, from So Yeon that she was leaving North Korea, was en route across China and was about to reach the border of Myanmar. But then the updates stopped. A few months later, she heard through her old neighbours in Yonsa what had happened: So Yeon had been arrested, sent back and sentenced to 10 years in a political prison. No one has heard from her since.
So Won wonders what her sister is like today, if she is even still alive, although she prefers not to think the worst. She would rather imagine that her sister is largely unchanged, that she would want So Won to take advantage of every second of her freedom. That is what So Won tells herself, at least. Her South Korean life feels so far from what they had envisioned.
So Won is looking for a job now. She is trying to find something in international relations, which she majored in. She cannot be sure, but she swears she noticed the conversation turn cold the moment she disclosed her North Korean background in her last interview.
She had photos made up. It is customary in South Korea to send a headshot with every application, no matter the position. It is also common for employers to ask applicants about their height, weight and plastic-surgery operations. So Won told the photographer not to Photoshop her face too much, to leave her beauty mark as is. When she got her photos back, the brown speck was gone.
Names have been changed. A version of this story appeared in The California Sunday Magazine.