Lee Jung Mi was born in Aoji village in North Hamgyong Province, and arrived in South Korea in 2002. She entered South Korea as a teenager and believed that she was emotionally unstable and overly concerned about her future back then. In those days, it was not easy for a North Korean defector to pursue academic success in South Korea. Nevertheless, Lee graduated from university, earned a masters degree, and is currently pursuing her doctoral degree.
Lee was also recently awarded a ‘global doctor’s fellowship’ from the National Research Foundation of Korea [NRF] under the Ministry of Education. The fellowship program is a project aimed at training internationally-recognized doctors, and candidates are evaluated on their research plans, overall competence, and creativity. Lee was awarded the final nomination after she was selected from a pool of three finalists. After reflecting on her journey that began in the small rural village of Aoji in North Korea, she cried with joy.
Although doubts persisted that she may have received special consideration given her North Korean defector background, she eventually became convinced that she earned the achievement through her own efforts. She invested significant effort in the application process, taking a TOEIC test and delivering a presentation in English. “I worked really hard throughout my life and finally some good came to me. I was really happy because it felt like a reward for all those efforts,” Lee said.
Lee says that she initially spent her teenage days feeling lonely in South Korea, as she entered the country on her own when she was 13. Fortunately, she met some good friends and opened up to them. She first decided to focus on changing her North Korean accent and asked her friends to correct her dialect, as she believed it could be a source of prejudice. But her concerns never eventuated. Her friends later confessed that they had many questions about North Korea but feared that asking her about them may cause her distress. Thanks to the kindness of her friends, she realized that it was her own prejudice that caused her to believe that South Koreans would discriminate against her because of her origin.
Lee worked hard to prepare for employment while studying at graduate school. As she was well aware of the importance of having good qualifications she considered becoming an intern reporter and an assistant researcher. In particular, she felt that an internship experience at a media company gave her more practical experience than four years of studying journalism in university. The work was difficult, but she learned how to write professionally, and gained valuable hands-on work experience.
After earning her master’s degree in North Korea studies, she was given an opportunity to work at the Bank of Korea, considered a dream occupation by many job seekers in South Korea. But the bank’s department of research on the North Korean economy initially wanted a researcher with a Master’s degree in economics, and so she was rejected. But six months later, the department called her again, saying, “We wanted to employ someone who majored in economics, but we were deeply moved by your self-introduction and would like to offer you a position as a researcher in another project.” It was only a six-month project, but gave her another precious opportunity to work in a professional environment. At the end of the project, she decided to earn a doctor’s degree and is now preparing for her future with the same concerns as many young South Korean adults her age, such as employment and marriage.
Lee hopes that misunderstandings by South Korean people regarding the settlement support system for defectors will be addressed. Many believe that defectors are automatically provided with settlement subsidies and housing free of charge, but this is inaccurate. The government does not provide housing for free but gives defectors opportunities to apply for rental housing. The settlement subsidies are also only temporary and all defectors must eventually earn their own living. In Lee’s case, she was able to get rental housing because she had lived in the same area for more than 10 years and because she had regular savings. She was finally able to purchase her own house after receiving an additional loan from the bank.
In response to complaints by some North Korean defectors that the government support is insufficient, Lee replied, “I hope that people from North Korea will not take the government support for granted. Of course, money is very important when settling in South Korean society, but I would rather suggest that those people spend more time building their inner strength. In the end, a successful settlement in South Korea depends on what kind of person you make yourself into.”
※ This article was brought to you with support from the Korea Press Foundation.