Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A North Korean Teenage Defector, now in Seoul

When I met Heo, he was living in a house on a mountainside on the northeastern edge of Seoul with seven other young North Korean defectors.

As lucky as Heo and his housemates said they were to be here, they clearly hadn't yet escaped the specter of the recent past. Living life on the lam in China had been its own discombobulation. They had no schooling or structure to their lives, except maybe fear. They slept in caves, arcades and safe houses, drifting from meal to meal -- sometimes days apart -- hoping at all costs to avoid detection. For they knew how well their homeland doled out its punishment. There had been reports of refugees being returned to North Korea, all of them strung together with a wire through their noses. One boy at the house was caught 17 times and beaten, it seemed, to the point of mild brain damage.

Now these eight lived in a four-bedroom ranch-style home with all the modern conveniences in an upscale neighborhood among a maze of quiet streets. And yet they were still dealing with an almost Orwellian terror about being found out by the country they had left behind. They said they believed that agents might still be hunting them. And human rights groups say that the families of defectors are often severely punished.

This residence, then, had become their newest 'safe house'. Known as the Evergreen School, it was set up by a South Korean aid group and served as a six-month bridge between the mandatory three-month orientation program that all North Korean refugees must go through and life after as newly minted South Korean citizens. At the house there were two ''teachers,'' who provided 24-hour coverage in the hope of reinforcing the routines of a normal life: shopping, cooking, sleeping regular hours. More often than not, however, they acted like housekeepers, den parents, confidants, baby sitters, referees and truant officers.

[Excerpt of an article by Michael Paterniti, GQ magazine]

No comments: