Kim Mi Gyeong [pictured left, Image: Daily NK] conducts defector support services at theRoman Catholic Archdiocese of Seoul Committee for Reconciliation of the Korean People. Kim, a defector herself, uses her experiences adapting to life in South Korea as a starting point for helping others. In a plot reminiscent of daytime TV, Kim thought that escaping North Korea and making a new life in a new land would be a cinch. Before meeting her current husband, Kim lived an affluent life under the auspices of her diplomat father in North Korea. The road from rich child to embittered defector to hopeful counselor was a long one indeed.
Kim’s husband is an ethnic Korean from China who originally came to North Korea for business. Instead of checking into a hotel, he stayed at the Kim residence for approximately one month during his trip. For Kim, it was the start of her new destiny. After returning to China, he sent her scores of letters and even sent word by way of messenger. Little did he know that the Kims had moved, and thus all his efforts to reach her were in vain. Finally, the fourth personal messenger sent by the smitten businessman got through to her. On his invitation, she went to China. She escaped empty handed, without any plans or preparation.
The original decision to defect came from a vague sense of curiosity. From the time she was young, . Kim studied music. At the age of six she went to China to perform at an event for Children’s Day. In North Korea she was always told, “Capitalism is a dangerous and corrupt system, even China is being destroyed by the influence of capitalism.” The real China Mrs. Kim saw during this trip was strikingly different with what she was told to expect. Even though she was young, she was shocked by the relative luxury and riches of China. When her husband sent the fourth and final messenger, Mrs. Kim recalled these feelings and decided to return to China.
After this, it became impossible for Kim to return to her home in North Korea. Her family had explained her absence to the authorities by saying that she died in a car accident. Kim spent a few years in China, but she and her husband resolved to go to South Korea soon after the birth of her first child. It was the start of yet another unforeseen turn in her life. While her husband and child waited behind in China to settle the family’s affairs before departure, Kim set off for South Korea alone. Upon arrival, the very first thing she did was call her mother. Her husband crossed the border into North Korea to bring her mother back to China for a visit. This way she could see the baby and receive a phone call from her daughter in South Korea.
“My mom was quite shocked to hear that I was calling from South Korea. She asked how I was doing and I said I was fine. I told her not to worry about me. At that point, all I wanted to do was go to China to meet her in the flesh. She told me about the ‘car accident’ my family reported to the authorities,” Kim said. “Since we could never see each other again, my mother told me to go on with my new life and never look back.”
North and South Koreans begin to empathize with one another
It was never going to be easy for Kim to adjust to her new surroundings in South Korea, especially given that she had arrived without any kind of preparation. During the initial three years, it was so difficult that at times she thought about returning to North Korea. This feeling was compounded by the fact that she grew up in a loving and affluent home in North Korea. She added that if not for her husband and children, the weight of this loneliness would have been too much to bear.
It is through these experiences that she derives the confidence and drive to excel in her current work, where she is a defector support counselor focusing on helping the urban poor on behalf of the Committee for Reconciliation of the Korean People and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seoul. Specifically, Kim works through “Peaceful House” to help the needy defectors in her local area. She goes directly to their houses to help them overcome poverty by focusing on the most basic needs and building upwards.
Among all of the duties she performs, Kim considers forming bonds and starting friendships with the defectors to be the most important aspect of her work. She is able to empathize with the defectors because she knows all too well how painful the process of acculturation can be. She understands what it means to have no one to talk to and no one to depend on when things get rough. That is why talking to defectors and giving them a sense of security has become such a natural mission for her.
Kim draws on her own experiences, saying, “South Koreans tend to think about North Korea in an abstract way and there are many people who have prejudice against defectors. I was forced to endure such preconceptions myself. I became a pariah when people judged me by my appearance, dialect, etc. It was a very painful time for me. When I started to talk to more defectors about it, I realized that they had gone through similar experiences.”
She said that her coworkers sometimes struggle to see why defectors can’t adapt to and act in line with the expectations of South Koreans. “In my mind, financial contribution is also appreciated, but showing interest and affection is an entirely more meaningful form of contribution. When I see defectors and South Koreans taking pains to try to understand one another, I am filled with joy and satisfaction because I know that this is what true reconciliation looks like,” Kim stated.
Striving to help defectors overcome their hardships
Image: Daily NK
Kim, who feels confident helping other defectors because she has gone through the same experiences as them, has also been highly motivated in her studies. At the “Committee to Unify the Homeland,” she studied for one year to learn how to conduct counseling for defectors.
“I found that one day, I had suddenly lost my identity. Looking back at the time that had passed by, I realized I had lost my resolve to live a meaningful life. While studying absentmindedly, I came to understand that I hadn’t really learned anything. Compared to the time I first entered South Korea, the support system for new defectors has changed quite dramatically. I studied in order to find out how to fix the system’s deficient aspects. And, most importantly, I made a lot of lasting friendships during that time,” she said.
Kim is interested in meeting new people. Expanding her network of friends and relations is also central to her goal: not for her own betterment, but rather because it is hard to anticipate exactly what a defector will need help with. For example, Kim was once introduced to a defector who was having great trouble dealing with insurance companies following the untimely death of his younger sibling. Kim connected him to a professor in law counseling she had met at the year long education program she attended. They were able to solve his problem. These kind of victories vindicate all the hard work Kim pours into helping the defectors she meets.
A longtime dream: to create a comfortable, safe space for defectors
For Kim, meeting with defectors gives her a sense of joy and purpose. Watching the older defectors lead productive, happy lives and helping the younger defectors to grow and learn gives her an unrivaled sense of fulfillment and gratification. With every encounter, Kim becomes more enthusiastic and passionate about her work. Through her own experience as a defector, she is able to talk to others about any issue that pop might up. She mostly deals with problems related to childcare, education, and geriatric care.
Kim’s future projects include: an education program for parents who need more information to make the right decisions about their children, creating a space for lonely elders to congregate, and making a study and play room for children whose parents are forced to work around the clock. On top of these, her longtime dream is to set up a safe and comfortable space for defectors, one that feels as cozy as their own homes. Given her penchant for tireless commitment, no one doubts her ability to accomplish this dream.
*This article was made possible by support from the Korea Hana Foundation [the North Korean Refugees Foundation].