04 November 2005

A North Korean Renegade in Seoul

Seoul's Christian community offered me enormous material and emotional support. Religion is very attractive to North Korean renegades. The atmosphere of quasi-religious adoration in which we were raised in North Korea only partially explains this phenomenon; more important, I believe, is the thirst for affection--for love, even--every renegade feels. I don't know whether I am profoundly religious, but I wanted to be baptized.

I was also lucky enough to receive support from a bank, which gave me a scholarship for the duration of my studies. Add to that the money I made from giving interviews and writing the occasional article, and I had few material worries.

Since my integration into South Korean life ultimately would have to take place through steady work, I joined Hanyang University. Its founder, Kim Yon-jun, was a strong advocate for human rights in the North. Many renegades had enrolled in his university, and I was encouraged to do the same. I chose international business as my major. All the students were much younger than I was, but they accepted me as they might an older brother. They liked me a lot and tried to help me however they could, especially with English, which I spoke poorly. Despite our amicable relations, many things they did put me off. They were always going out to cafes and restaurants, as though getting a soda from the dispenser and lying on the grass weren't good enough. They were throwing money out the window! Life in the North had made me a bit of a Spartan. When students sat down cross-legged in front of me and started smoking, I had a hard time holding my tongue; you don't do that in front of someone your senior. The North is hypertraditionalist. Friendships between members of the opposite sex is not the norm. When a man speaks to a woman his own age, he employs the familiar form of address, she the formal. Relations follow a strict hierarchy. Here, we were equal! Some of the female students were so self-confident, they hardly paid me any attention when I spoke to them.

I eventually got used to all this. I have fond memories of my days at the university, even though the leftist students often riled me. They always tried to make me see the shortfalls of the South Korean system of government. At least the North wasn't corrupted by a fierce, never-ending battle for profit! Though I lacked the theoretical arguments to counter their claims, I wasn't impressed. "Go to the North," I told my contradictors, "and you'll stop trying to excuse all Kim Il-sung's failures. Go find out for yourselves."
SOURCE: The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, translated by Yair Reiner (Basic Books, 2001), pp. 227-228

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