Choi Kwang Hyock, once a North Korean soldier, said he escaped while on patrol one night 13 years ago by bolting across the heavily fortified border, dodging bullets, landmines and barbed wire to reach freedom in the south. That was the easy part.
Once in South Korea, Choi said he faced such deep discrimination from his newly-adopted countrymen that he eventually fled in search of better opportunities overseas.
"The hardest thing to endure is racism," said Choi, 38, who went to Brazil in 2003, followed by Argentina and Australia, after a college degree earned at Hanyang University in Seoul couldn't land him a job.
Choi said he was rejected by some 500 South Korean companies, mostly during interviews, when managers found out he was born in Pyongyang. His South Korean classmates secured jobs at blue-chip companies.
"South Koreans just see us as people who live on their taxes," said Choi, who left his parents and six siblings behind when he escaped. "The five decades of separation is not something to be resolved overnight."
Choi eventually returned, taking a job in 2006 at the Association of North Korean Defectors in Seoul, where he continues to see refugees struggling to overcome prejudice. "The question is, are South Koreans willing to change their attitude toward us?"