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Thursday, May 7, 2015

My Lunch With Ms. Jung

From a short distance the stand of trees all look similar. The wind stirs and the young spring leaves all rustle in unison. It seems like one voice. But get closer. You can make out a lilac tree hidden from view. It has those lovely purple flowers. And that unique scent finds its way to you. It causes you to say, "My goodness, you are lovely aren't you?"

Somehow Jung Su Min's* presence in the Daegu area found its way to me. She had briefly been a student at an area English academy. Then, another area professor told me about her and he helped me track her down.

Su Min, 30, recently escaped from North Korea. She told no one about her plans. She left a note for her mother. Her father, working for an administrative branch of the DRPK army, died shortly after her departure. I had many questions, but I knew I had to put them aside for the moment.

She agreed to meet me for lunch. Students were coming and going, strutting their latest styles, distracted by their smart phones. I did notice one woman sitting alone off to the side on a bench under some trees. She was wearing a long billowy white dress and red heels looking a bit like she stepped out of the 1980s. In a sense, she had.

We walked together through a forested area near her campus. We went to a restaurant off the beaten path, one where we could talk without the jarring din of Korean music.

Her face held many stories. It spoke too, of beautiful simplicity. Her make-up was minimal. Her face was round, like many of the faces I saw during my visit to North Korea last summer. As the side dishes were brought to us, she moved the small bowls and plates around the table. Her hands looked strong, her fingers plain and rough, utilitarian, almost ignored--far different from the manicured, attention-seeking fingers of most female Korean students.

Cosmopolitan women of Pyongyang

Su Min, in her steady but basic English, told me that the route of her escape took her through China, Laos, and then, into Thailand. There she found access to South Korea. I imagined that she had gone through a lengthy screening and interrogation process here, but she said it only consisted of completing forms for several hours. Where do you live I asked? How do you survive financially? What do you do? Questions asked in rapid succession.

Thailand is generally the next-to-last destination of North Koreans escaping through China. Many Koreans surrender themselves to the Thai police soon after they across the border. Over the past ten years the number of North Korean defectors coming to South Korea has averaged 2,170 a year, 70% of them women.

I quickly realized I wasn't "just" sitting with a North Korean defector. I was having lunch with a woman of clarity, of strong convictions. She is a woman fully 10 years older than most of my students. Unlike those students, she is not distracted by the lure of commercials, the incessant marketing and the expensive brands that intoxicate most young Koreans. She was here to learn, to gain knowledge, fully appreciative of her opportunities, of her new found freedom.

Woman walking with friend in Pyongyang

Su Min lives alone, she told me. She earns her income. The South Korean government pays her to speak, to tell her story at gatherings of soldiers and at prisons. While the government has helped her find her way to her university, she lacks many of the resources her South Korean counterparts typically use to jumpstart their careers.

South Koreans traditionally rely on three sets of "connections" to get access to jobs and secure their careers: Hyak yun (학연), school contacts, Jee yun (지연), social and geographical contacts, and Hyul yun (혈연), family and generational contacts. Su Min, having left her family in North Korea, by definition, starts at a severe disadvantage in terms of all three types of connections. So, she wants to focus on her studies at the university and to gain as much knowledge as possible as she begins her career and life journey in South Korea.

She is able to be in occasional touch with her mother; a complicated process involving Chinese cell phone connections. Surprisingly, she is able to provide her mother with financial support. She saves up money she earns and though secretive and expensive connections through China, her cash finds its way to her mom. The process, however, is very expensive. She pays a 30% fee for each transaction.

I asked Su Min about her future plans. I expected to hear some vague ideas about "fitting in" and quietly assimilating into society here in South Korea. But Su Min looked at me confidently and told me she has both 5 and 10 year plans. "I want to be a politician here in South Korea," she told me proudly. I was impressed with her assertiveness, but surely, her courage and mettle is what helped her to find her way safely out of North Korea, across China and ultimately, to the seat across the table from me here in South Korea.

I had one last question, one that has gnawed at me through the many books and articles I have read about North Korea. It had puzzled me during my conversations with both North Koreans and the people who do business there. I asked Su Min if most North Koreans know the basic truth, that their leaders are fabricating reality, and that there is a wider world of freedom existing just past their border. "Yes, they know," she said. "But it's too dangerous to speak about it."

As we walked back to her campus it became clear to me just how special this young woman was. There are indeed many trees in the forest all rustling in unison. But this young lady, I thought, answers to a breeze all her own. This one, I said to myself, is going to make history. 

Author's note: *Jung Su Min is not her real name. Her name was changed to protect her privacy. Other aspects of her story, for example her major and her university, have been omitted to help preserve her anonymity.