N. Korean overseas worker welcomes New S. Korean holiday for defectors

The South Korean government recently decided to designate July 14 as “North Korean Defectors’ Day.” Minister of Unification Kim Yung-ho announced that the day would be an opportunity to remember North Korean defectors in South Korean society and send a message of hope to the North Korean people.

To realize a “free, peaceful and unified Korean Peninsula,” as President Yoon Suk Yeol stressed during his March 1 Independence Movement Day address, the Unification Ministry plans to push three central tasks this year: properly informing the public about Korea, inducing changes in North Korea and strengthening South Korea’s capacity for unification. The enactment of North Korean Defectors’ Day is aimed at enhancing South Korea’s capacity for unification.

To learn more about North Koreans’ thoughts on the new holiday, Daily NK interviewed a North Korean worker in Russia earlier this month. The full interview is below. 

Daily NK: The South Korean government designated July 14 as “North Korean Defectors’ Day” to mark South Korea’s first passage of the North Korean Refugees Protection and Settlement Support Act on July 14, 1997. Have you heard this news?

“Overseas workers like us closely watch these policies by South Korea and greatly welcome the news [of the enactment of North Korean Defectors’ Day]. People in North Korea will also learn of the news, albeit later than us. When they do, they could think of South Korea as another fatherland.”

Daily NK: What was the first thing you thought when you heard the news?

“I thought it was a significant day for people who live with holidays like the Day of the Sun and the Day of the Shining Star imprinted on us more than our parent’s or sibling’s birthday. I’m one of the people who want to become a South Korean citizen. Since leaving my home in the fatherland and coming overseas, I’ve wanted to seize that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. However, I haven’t been able to go [to South Korea] because I don’t know how. It’s also true that I’m scared because I’ll be killed if I’m caught. Since coming abroad, I’ve been coming to realize that the government’s talk of the supposed accomplishments of North Korea’s leaders and the party’s ideology are all lies. I have countless thoughts about how I want to go to a nation that accepts me and where I can live free to live my life truly.”

Daily NK: What do you think of South Korea? Or what is your perception of the country?

“I think it’s a free, strong and rich country. My perception of South Korea wasn’t good when reports emerged a few years ago that some defectors who escaped by boat to the South were forcibly sent back to the North. Other workers here criticized [South Korea] for sending them back to the North when it was clear they were being sent to their deaths. However, seeing how South Korea has enacted North Korean Defectors’ Day, my perception of South Korea has improved as it appears the country is making efforts to adhere to policies that treat defectors warmly.” 

Daily NK: Have you encountered anyone who has gone to South Korea?

“I’ve talked directly with somebody over the phone, and I’ve heard through others how people are living. I often heard that life was much better there than in North Korea and that the government supports defectors. However, they told me that everything in the [South Korean] movies was fiction. I heard it was really hard to live as well as native South Koreans. Is anywhere as good as one thinks? In reality, probably not. Still, is working here in Russia easy? We work for dear life, eating and wearing scraps and buying what the merchants put in front of their shops right before it goes bad just to save a penny. I really want to go to South Korea right away.”

Daily NK: What kind of life do you want to lead if you go to South Korea?

If I go to there, I just want to work at a company, learn new skills, and gradually save money to send to my family in North Korea.” 

Daily NK: What would you like to say to the South Korean government?

“Given that the country has announced a North Korean Defectors’ Day, I hope that South Korea never sends defectors back to the North. People who have risked their lives to go to the South — and their families — will be slaughtered like animals if they go back to the North. Would you put your own family in harm’s way like that? I want to believe such a thing won’t happen again. My heart has warmed hearing that South Korea enacted the holiday. I’m grateful.”

Translated by David Black. Edited by Robert Lauler.

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