Young Defectors Experience a New Kind of Lunar New Year

Lee Cheol Yong, who recently enjoyed his fifth
Lunar New Year since arriving in South Korea, was elated to have been able to spend another holiday with his friends, breaking out in a smile when he spoke of all of their plans together. Sadly, unlike Lee, there
are many North Korean defectors who are overcome with loneliness at this
time of year when they think about their hometowns back in North Korea.

Busy with adapting to an unfamiliar country and
carving out a new life for themselves, the only time defectors are generally able
to convene with other friends who have escaped from the North are around
Chuseok and the Lunar New Year holiday. Teen defectors find this task even more
difficult–busy with college and employment preparations makes finding the time to
meet and reminiscence outside of these two holidays a difficult task.

In North Korea, genders are typically segregated for most holidays. Despite scant instances of men and women meeting together for class reunions, most teen
refugees agreed that during the holidays, men and women met with the same
gender group because it was more natural to do so in the North.  However, in South Korea, these same teens have remarked how different the holiday practices can be in this regard, with friends of friends or romantic partners joining in on the celebrations.

Daily NK spoke with one young defector
about this who said, “In North Korea, people don’t like
it when you bring new people to their get-together, but in South Korea, they
welcome the new member with open arms.” He added, “This holiday [Lunar New
Year], when I told my defector friends that I would be bringing my girlfriend as
well as her friends, they were excited.”

He particularly enjoys enlightening his South Korean friends as to the celebratory customs in the North and how they differ here in the South. Despite the economic and cultural disparities between the two Koreas, he
appreciates that young people can still find a lot of common ground and know
how to have a good time together.

These parties during the Lunar New Year
typically include young defectors reminiscing about their days back in North
Korea by cooking foods emblematic of their hometowns. Though the cuisine can
vary widely, rice cake soup, dumplings, rice
mixed with soy meat, and various types of naengmyeon [cold
noodles] are omnipresent dishes.

Most of all, they feel a sense of relief
from the relative economic stability that life in the South affords their families.
In North Korea, most young defectors recall feeling an overwhelming sense of
guilt when asking their parents for money to meet their friends during the
holidays. Many of them with whom the Daily NK spoke said that while in
North Korea it is virtually impossible for one person to pay for a group of
friends at any celebratory gathering, it is far more plausible in the South, and that friends are generally
more than willing to ensure that their less fortunate companions have a bountiful, pleasant holiday.

Kim Song Il, a university student
originally from North Korea offered his sentiments on the matter, saying, “In North Korea, I felt guilty asking my
mother for money every time I went out to meet friends. Even though I worked, I
couldn’t do much with that income. However, in South Korea, my income balances
out, so I don’t have to ask for money and burden my mother, which makes it feel
more like a holiday.”

Kang Mi Jin is a North Korean defector turned journalist who fled North Korea in 2009. She has a degree in economics and writes largely on marketization and economy-related issues for Daily NK. Questions about her articles can be directed to