INCHEON, Korea, Republic Of — For much of the world, North Korea is a Stalinist nightmare, an isolated enclave of prison camps, poverty and hunger.
But for tens of thousands of people scattered across South Korea and living underground in China, it’s something far more complicated. It’s a memory they wrestle with. It’s home. It’s the place they left behind. And even if there is plenty they hate about it, there is also much that they miss, sometimes achingly.
They miss relatives and friends and the small-town neighbourliness that can come, admittedly, in not having many recreation choices. They miss dancing to accordion music in public parks on their days off, and the greasy street food they’d yearn for when they were most hungry. At times, they even miss the three generations of dictators ‚Äî Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and now Kim Jong Un ‚Äî who have controlled the country for nearly 70 years.
“I think all the time about the people I knew there,” said a former coal miner, a gentle man who works at least 12 hours a day in a Seoul convenience store, and who has the disheveled look of someone who rarely gets enough sleep. He left North Korea a decade ago with his family. “Whenever we’re together, and we’re eating a good meal, we think about those people.”
More than 27,000 North Korean refugees live in South Korea. Thousands more live underground in China, often working menial jobs for low pay, though just how many remains widely debated. A handful of other refugees live in countries ranging from England to the United States.
The convenience store manager, whose muscular arms still betray his years as a miner, misses the siblings he left behind, and the nieces and nephews he may never meet. Relatives in South Korea paid smugglers to get his family out, he said, but his siblings wouldn’t go.
“They were too afraid,” he said. “Now they regret it.” Like nearly all North Korean exiles, he spoke on condition his name not be used, fearing retribution against extended family still in the North. Researchers say relatives of refugees, particularly those known to live in South Korea, can face punishments from job demotions to imprisonment.
He has no warmth for the Pyongyang government, railing against the regime for leaving nearly all North Koreans in poverty as a handful grow rich.
But some other refugees disagree. Polls of North Korean refugees, often known here as defectors, say many still have some fondness for the leaders in Pyongyang.
“All three (of the Kim family dictators) really did think of the North Korean people,” said another exile, a former North Korean policeman who acknowledged that he is torn about his feelings.
North Korea, he noted, has spent billions of dollars on its military even as so many of its people have gone hungry. In the worst times, hundreds of thousands of people are thought to have died in a famine that ripped through the country in the mid-1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea’s most important patron at the time.
But, he added, his homeland is also a small, poor country that has successfully stood up to the world, surviving international isolation and years of economic sanctions. So when Pyongyang sets off a nuclear test or test-fires a missile, he sees a leader proving he cannot be bullied.
“Maybe this is the way Kim Jong Un can protect his family, protect his people, protect his country,” said the former policeman, pride filling his voice. “If I was in his position, sometimes I think I might do the same thing.” He paused: “Well, sometimes.”
He knew how that sounded, and it surprised even him a little. But like all North Koreans, he grew up enveloped in an all-pervasive personality cult that portrays the Kims as something akin to gods. They are studied in schools and discussed by every adult in mandatory political sessions. Thousands of monuments to them ‚Äî statues, paintings, busts, inscriptions, memorials, mosaics, historic sites ‚Äî have been built across the country, and occupy central positions in every town and city.
In official hagiographies, they defeat every enemy, win every race and outsmart every other world leader. Their titles are repeated endlessly in announcements: the Marshal, the Respected General, the Great Leader of Mankind, the Sun in the Sky.
While the famine changed much in North Korea, including how the leaders are seen by ordinary people, it is impossible for North Koreans to escape the worshipful propaganda, and very difficult for them not to be affected by it.
Plus, North Korea is more than the Orwellian cliche that it sometimes appears to be in Western headlines. It’s a complex place where even those who suffered terribly can remember good times, whether that was visiting grandparents over the New Year holiday, families looking out for one another when food ran low, or the small-town feel ‚Äî with flirting young people and gossiping elders ‚Äî after the staged mass political rallies that can bring tens of thousands of people together.
For the ex-policeman, his sometimes-generous view of North Korea is mixed up with his difficulty adjusting to life in South, a common problem among the refugees who live here. He hasn’t been able to hold a job for more than few months, and constantly worries that he’s being discriminated against. He’s overwhelmed by the South, sometimes talks about wanting to return home. Lost amid Seoul’s dual whirlwinds of consumerism and competitiveness, he yearns for the days when things seemed simpler.
“In South Korea, tradition only decreases as time goes by,” he said. “Now it looks like a Western society.”
For instance, he says few wives in North Korea would begin eating a meal before their husbands had eaten, an ancient custom that has been largely abandoned in South Korea.
The government in Pyongyang, for its part, openly detests North Koreans who flee the country, once calling them “human scum who betrayed their homeland and people” in an official report. Leaving North Korea has also become much more difficult in recent years, with security tightened dramatically along the border with China ‚Äî the usual method of escape ‚Äî since Kim Jong Un came to power.
Last year, 1,277 North Koreans resettled in the South, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry, less than half as many as in 2011.
Ask those people, though, and nearly all say there is something they miss.
A middle-aged woman, once a black-market gold dealer, says she is happy in South Korea. After some initial cultural confusion ‚Äî “When I first heard rap music I said: ‘What is this? Is it a song?’” ‚Äî she has grown to love her life in Incheon, a city near Seoul.
What she missed was injogogibap, a popular North Korean street food and meat substitute, made from rice and leftover bits of tofu, that became popular at the height of the famine. Not long ago, she found a couple of restaurants near her new home that serve it.
She smiled when she talked about eating injogogibap in North Korea, and smiled again when she said she finally found places in Incheon to buy it.