Min Ah Shin is a 47-year-old defector from Pyongyang who arrived in South Korea in 2014. She now works as a clairvoyant offering fortune-telling services and consultations. A common form of divination in Korea purports to look at a person’s fate by taking into consideration the month, date, and time of birth. Shin uses the method to offer life advice to her clients and feels that it’s the job perfect for her.
Her defection from North Korea was exceptionally difficult. After marrying her military officer husband, she had a baby and left her book-keeping job. When the Rason Special Economic Zone opened up, she began selling plates at the market. Her sister and her daughter had previously left for China 13 years ago, and the police station continued to harass her about her sister’s whereabouts. Shin eventually chose to defect to China in 2012 because she could no longer endure the harassment from the authorities, and spent a year and a half there before coming to South Korea alone. The rest of her family still lives in Pyongyang.
She fled to China with a friend, and with the help of her friend’s relative, she worked at a restaurant for a month. The promised monthly pay was 3000 yuan, but she was only paid half the amount. She protested to her boss, but the boss threatened to report her to the Public Security Bureau. The incident caused a fight between Shin and her friend, and her friend ended up selling Shin to human traffickers. Shin was sold to a Han Chinese man, but fortunately he was kind. But he was also stateless and could not protect her, so she had no choice but to go to South Korea.
Happy to be fairly compensated for her work
She recalls that one of the happiest moments in South Korea was when she was assigned her house. Because she was elected as a team president after passing through a settlement program at Hanawon (Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees), Shin was given priority in house selection and chose Seoul. She was so delighted to be elected manager that she was unable to sleep and couldn’t wait to start working.
After two weeks of education at Hanawon, her first job was at a chicken meat supplier in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province. For about a month, she worked standing up all day and realized that earning money was far from easy. Her job involved chopping chicken into 20-25 gram pieces in a cold, air-conditioned room with cold water sprinklers. Despite wearing gloves and clothes, the work was cold and difficult. Not only were her hands and feet cold, but because she was chopping, her wrists and ankles also hurt. She had also been under physical strain during her move to South Korea, and decided to quit her job after a month.
Shin noted that although it was only a month, she was surprised and happy to be fairly compensated for her work. When she began talking about sending her first paycheck to North Korea, her voice grew larger. She recalled thinking that, “If I really try, I can live a good life. It would be hard, but if I lived alone, I could earn enough to buy a year’s worth of food.” She also opened a bank account, something she didn’t have back in North Korea. Shin found it liberating to be able to freely put money in and take money out of her bank account. She began hoping that she could make enough money to bring all of her family over from North Korea, and felt a sense of satisfaction in filling her house with new furniture, including a washing machine and television from the money she earned.
A country where education leads to a job you love
But because her body was weak, it was difficult for Shin to continue doing physical work. She eventually decided to enroll at an academy to obtain qualifications. Computer courses were difficult for her, while cooking classes fit well with her interests. She also attended an academy to become an aged care worker, as she considered it a job she could do even in old age. But out of all the things she tried, she eventually settled on something she enjoyed: reading fortunes. “It was so much fun talking to clients,” she said with a big smile. “Reading people’s fortunes and talking to them about their partners, careers, and future is a lot of fun and I finally felt that I’d found the right job for me.”
But she ran into unexpected difficulties after she deciding on her new career. She initially thought communication would not be a problem because North and South Koreans both speak the same language, but the more she worked, the more she felt that there were language barriers. It was especially frustrating when she had to repeatedly explain the same thing. The large number of foreign loanwords in South Korea was another challenge, but with more experience, she was able to overcome the issue.
This year, Shin married her husband, who is a doctor and also a defector. She has received a lot of help from him, particularly with her ailing body. She added that when the Korean peninsula is unified, she will be able to meet her child in North Korea and is preparing for the day. Her defection caused a lot of difficulties for her family back in North Korea, and she hopes to earn enough money to leave a house for them when they finally meet one day.
She says that she still feels guilty about the daughters she left back in North Korea, and hopes the she will one day reunite with them.