“My defector friends describe it as like taking a time machine, from the 1900s to the 21st century,” said Daehyeon Park, who himself defected to the South, but only after spent several years in Great Britain, giving him the computer skills – and the English – necessary to navigate the globalized city of Seoul.
Acknowledging the difficulty and alienation his fellow defectors face, Park sat down with several in a cafe and compared notes on what they knew when they arrived. They found that although there were around 40 organizations helping defectors, each had its own website and there was no central place to go to find out more about them.
That coffee meeting grew into Woorion, a deeply connected and influential defector network that Park now leads, serving a third of South Korea’s defector community. Woorion is a one-stop information hub, connecting North Koreans to the resources and community they need to succeed in their new life in the South.
After a North Korean defector returns home, a struggle to find clues to his life in the South
Woorion is a household name among defector circles, but for years he kept a low profile so he could focus on his community. Now Park has big dreams for the future of his organization and wants to show the international community what his generation of defectors is capable of.
“I want to explore the voice of my community. I want to do something good for our community and the future with more people,” said Park, 31. “Now is the time to build a community overseas.
The first years after a defector’s arrival are when they are most vulnerable and can fall through the cracks – an issue underscored by a rare re-defection of a North Korean who struggled to s adapt to Seoul and decided to return to the North.
The only official support for defectors is a three-month orientation course run by the South Korean government, which only outlines what it takes to survive and thrive in South Korea’s fierce capitalist society. , which is experiencing high youth unemployment and booming housing. prices.
As of last fall, there were at least 33,815 North Korean defectors living in the South, according to official figures from the Unification Ministry. The majority are women, and more than half of those defecting are between the ages of 20 and 30 – need education and careers, and are looking for stability, such as marriage and a family. They usually escape on their own.
Being an adult is hard, and it’s even harder as a refugee fleeing a poor, socialist country under totalitarian rule to South Korea, the world’s 10th largest economy. Many already distrust people and institutions and often struggle with trauma, which can create additional barriers to assimilation.
They are vulnerable to financial fraud schemes, often stemming from multi-level marketing and “get-rich-quick” investment deals targeting newly arrived defectors. They also face bogus brokers who promise to help them send money back to their families in the North, only to scam them.
Park’s organization, which works out of an unassuming office in Seoul, is run by a team of seven millennials and Gen Zers who particularly want to help the younger generation who make up the bulk of defectors.
“The problem they face is getting information. They’ve never had any experience with computers, technology, email, the Internet,” Park said. “Majority of my community is facing this problem, so I decided to solve this problem.”
In the early years of Woorion, Park started a messaging group on KakaoTalk, South Korea’s leading messaging app, spreading information that could help other refugees. Over 5,000 registered in the first year. People started giving each other clothes and household items. The older North Korean refugees prepared meals for the younger ones who longed for their mother’s homemade food at home.
“I knew if we continued this it would change the life of my community,” he said.
As talks with North Korea stall, some are wondering: what if we try something different?
In recent years, a younger generation of North Koreans in South Korea have emerged as ambitious and creative entrepreneurs, with many determined to show North Korean defectors as resilient contributors to South Korean society rather than as victims.
Park is “a good example of this new generation of North Korean entrepreneurs and how they don’t just entertain, but create solutions for themselves, their communities and their wider society,” Sokeel said. Park, Liberty in North Korea Country Director for South Korea. , which helps North Koreans resettle in the South.
Woorion maintains a robust database, which allows its group to survey members and use the data to evolve and organize the information their community needs most. The organization is seeking international research partners to help draw more attention to the experience of these North Koreans.
The group also has a YouTube channel with life and work tips, including the pros and cons of talking about your defector background in job interviews, the benefits of going to therapy, and avoiding fraud.
Seoul success story: these young North Korean escapees thrive in the South
“Everyone needs these kinds of networks and connections, and the simple truth is that the vast majority of North Korean refugees leave their entire community, their network, in North Korea, and there’s no way to build on that,” Sokeel Park said. “They are completely dislocated from it, having to start from scratch.”
Inspired by the Forbes “30 Under 30” list, Woorion launched an online magazine for Millennials and Gen Z defectors that shares the experiences of those who have become entrepreneurs and business leaders.
Woorion’s Park now aspires to tackle more directly some of the most common obstacles faced by defectors, such as establishing a credit union so that North Koreans can access loans at affordable rates. Without a credit history, defectors find it difficult to obtain loans to start businesses and are often charged high interest rates.
With post-traumatic stress disorder common among North Korean defectors, Woorion also plans to increase mental health resources.
Park said he wants to see the community support each other and fill in the gaps that no amount of support from the South Korean government can fill.
“Society is changing rapidly…and even if they learn from [the government upon arrival], it is impossible to fully understand this society,” he said. “It is now up to the North Korean communities to decide. We need to own our community and understand the importance of our roles to our community.