On Being the Minority: Amongst North Koreans

*Today’s article comes from Vanessa who is currently teaching English in Korea along with her husband Dan – and they get to work together, aww! Take it away, Vanessa!*

When I first told my co-workers that my husband and I were going to be moving to Korea to teach English, their first reaction was worry. “But isn’t it dangerous over there?” “You’re not going to North Korea, are you?” “What if you get taken hostage?” For seasoned travelers, these questions are quite normal. The world is a scary place to many people who have never left their own country, and I must admit, the name “Korea” hasn’t exactly had a good reputation in the news until Psy came along. Unfortunately, the kind, open-minded South Korea, is often overshadowed by his demanding, psychopathic brother, North Korea.


Ready for whatever Korea has to offer

During our first few months in Korea, I came across the book Aquariums of Pyongyang, a true story of a Korean family living in Japan who chose to move back home to North Korea, only to be sentenced to treason and life in a torturous gulag. The author had lived 10 precious years of his adolescence being isolated, beaten, and starved only to eventually be let out of the gulag, escape North Korea, and sneak his way through China to South Korea. With his book, I became slightly obsessed with learning about North Korea. I couldn’t believe that a man with such a life story now lived only one hour away! (Heck, all of North Korea lived about 2 hours from my house.) I became fascinated with the idea that the language, history, and personalities of the Koreans who were a part of my daily life mirrored those imprisoned within their own country a few miles north.

When I mentioned my interest in North Korea to one of my Korean co-workers, she told me, “Hey, you know that there’s an apartment building behind this school that is especially for North Koreans, right?” Why hadn’t I thought about it before?! Even though I (most likely) couldn’t meet the now-famous author of Aquariums, dozens of incredible North Korean men and women surrounded my everyday life. But how could I meet them? My Korean language skills were too embarrassingly small, and you can’t quite walk up to a stranger and ask them if they are from North Korea!


One does not simply ask, “Are you from North Korea?”

Quite easily, actually, I found a church service specifically for North Koreans within walking distance of my apartment. With almost freaky timing, one of my co-workers approached me and asked if she could help translate whenever I was ready to go to the service. I finished a giant tome about North Korean history and culture, and my co-worker studied up on some words specific only to North Korea. We were ready.

With some freshly baked chocolate chip cookies as a “thank you for having us” gift, Gina, my husband, and I were seated at a table with four other Koreans. In total, the room was filled with at least 50 people in groups of six sitting around fold-out tables. The service began right when we arrived, so there was little time for introductions beforehand. As we sat down, I was keenly aware of the whispers and heads turning towards us, worried what they were thinking about us. Americans definitely aren’t shown in a good light in North Korea, but these were the people who boldly refused to believe… right? As the service started, I suddenly heard the word waegookin (foreigner) and cookies, and everyone began to clap. Gina turned to me and said, “They’re thanking us for coming and especially for the cookies.” Nothing like food to make new friends!

Because I didn’t understand much of what was said during the service, I had plenty of time to subtly look around and wonder about each person in the room. Where had they come from? Who had they left behind? What kind of emotional struggles were they going through? What did they think of South Korea? What did they think of us? And selfishly I worried that my cookies were too buttery.


Welcoming two North Korean women who had just arrived in the south

After the service, we were instantly surrounded by pretty much everyone present. Gina transformed into a translating machine… seriously, she was incredible. Everyone was throwing questions at us left and right, and through Gina, we shared some about ourselves, and soaked in every last word they said. One middle-aged man said he’d left his family and come alone to Korea via China and Laos as a teenager; another woman timidly said (in English), “I’m taking English classes at the university”; another heavily-aged man came over and just sat at our table saying nothing.

Over our time in Korea, I was gradually becoming accustomed to being the minority in an overwhelmingly homogenous population. Here in this room, we were again the minority, but the minority amongst North Koreans. That realization was shocking to me. A mere few months ago, I had been only reading about those who had fought all terrors to survive. Now here we were, being showered with graciousness and thankfulness by those very same people. And they were thanking us.

Thank you for being interested in our country.”

Thank you for not discriminating against us because of the government.”

Thank you for going out of your way to come here.”

Thank you for simply caring.”

If our time with North Koreans has taught me one thing, it’s that, no matter how incredible the story, those who have suffered unthinkable horrors and braved insurmountable obstacles look just the same as you or me. While it may seem obvious, the kindly 14-year-old girl clad in jeans and Converse, the dainty 60-year-old woman with tightly permed hair, the 40-year-old man smartly dressed in a business suit could-have-been-anyone. I could have unknowingly bumped shoulders with any of these people throughout the past year. You could have.


How the world should be: North and South Koreans helping each other through the ups and downs of life

These seemingly ordinary looking people had enough stories (and suffering) to fill countless books. But not just those who lived through extreme situations have stories worth hearing. So does the lady who works at the coffee shop. The man beside you on the subway. So does my grandma. My dad. So does yours. Our relationship with those at the North Korean church service led to an afternoon-long video interview which Gina is currently translating.

Despite the incredible fortune of being accepted by the North Korean community, I was left wondering, ”Why would I ask to find out a stranger’s life story before knowing my own family’s?” But that’s the odd thing about story-seekers, we reach out to learn more about others before learning about our own history. I want to challenge myself to take that curiosity and turn it inwards. If these strangers are bursting with rich stories, I can only imagine what treasures my family has packed away.

Hi, I’m Vanessa from the travel blog Sautéed Happy Family! If you like to laugh at silly Engrish, explore the world outside your home, and be generally awesome, feel free to connect with our blog, Facebook, and Twitter! I’d love to hear from you!


  • Andy says:

    I can totally relate your experience in some ways. I have also experienced many of the same questions as you mention in the beginning from others. People are only shown one side of the world from TV. At the same time, digging a little deeper shows you an entirely different aspect, one full of stories. Thanks for sharing Audrey, hope you and Samuel are good!
    Andy recently posted..Respecting Culture when you TravelMy Profile

    • Vanessa says:

      Thanks, Andy! For those who haven’t traveled, the media does make it difficult to see that travel is IS safe and worthwhile. I hope us bloggers can present an alternative travel media that encourages seeing the world!
      Vanessa recently posted..OMG! Will North Korea Attack?My Profile

  • Paul says:

    Great article. I love that you acted on your desire to know more about the North Koreans and their experiences. Too often people find it easy to make sweeping judgements about a group of people, a country, a region – without ever stopping to think that people are people – all individuals with their own personal experiences and stories.
    Paul recently posted..BangPop: ReviewMy Profile

    • Vanessa says:

      Thanks, Paul! Yeah, I totally agree… having an interest is one thing, but doing something about it is another. I was pretty lucky that everything fell into place: finding NKoreans, a friend who was willing to translate, and really just being in Korea in the first place. So glad it worked out!
      Vanessa recently posted..OMG! Will North Korea Attack?My Profile

  • George says:

    Wow touching. I’m a bit obsessed with North Korea myself, I would love to meet people and hear their story.
    George recently posted..Germany’s Top 5 Most Tranquil SpotsMy Profile

  • Andrea says:

    What an amazing experience! How great that you got to do that and see a side of Korea most of us expats never see.

  • Troo says:

    Gorgeous article, Vanessa. And I’m glad to see that, on a personal level, South Koreans embrace North Koreans who need them the most. It leaves me wondering how many were less successful in their attempts to leave the DPRK, and what may have happened to them.
    Troo recently posted..Gifu Castle, Gifu, JapanMy Profile

    • Vanessa says:

      Thanks, Troo! It was great to see South Koreans reaching out to the Northern refugees… unfortunately, this tends to be the exception rather than the rule. All the negative media about the NKorean government settles deep in SKorean culture. After a while it’s hard to separate the NKorean people (who really have no voice to speak up for themselves) from the wack policies and threats that are all over the news. It’s a complicated issue, but I do hope that more SKoreans see the reality that NKoreans were just the unfortunate Koreans to be born a few kilometers to the north. As far as what happens to most NKoreans when they try to escape, I’d suggest watching these defector interviews on YouTube: http://bit.ly/Zpo5PH
      Vanessa recently posted..OMG! Will North Korea Attack?My Profile

      • Troo says:

        Interesting video. Thanks for that 🙂

        I noticed in the RoK that there’s a lot of propaganda, directed both at inflating the South, and at striking out against the North, Japan, and anyone else caught in the media crosshairs. From a visitor’s point of view it’s interesting to see a modern Cold War nation cope with the ongoing stresses of enduring such a standoff, but it can’t be easy on the people 🙁
        Troo recently posted..Gifu Castle, Gifu, JapanMy Profile

        • Vanessa says:

          Totally right. The South (and American media) is definitely not innocent from stretching the truth and fear-mongering, too (that’s what I rant about in my latest post). At least those of us outside of North Korea have access to differing opinions that can hopefully make us less susceptible to the exaggerations told to us… hopefully!
          Vanessa recently posted..OMG! Will North Korea Attack?My Profile

  • Wow, that is an amazing story..and experience!
    Thanks for the post.
    Dariece – Goats On The Road recently posted..We’ve Been Published!!My Profile

  • Dan says:

    It’s amazing that you managed to get in touch with the North Koreans and hear their side of the story. I would love to do that one day when I end up in Korea.
    Dan recently posted..Partying with the Kristang – MelakaMy Profile

  • We took a tour of the DMZ recently and afterwards I thought a lot about this kind of situation. I would’ve loved to chat with North Koreans who had been brave enough to escape, to find out if they are in touch with the families they left behind and what people in North Korea really think about their own situation – if they even realize they have a situation! It’s all so tragic and fascinating.
    cosmoHallitan recently posted..Snapshot: Seoul of AsiaMy Profile

    • Vanessa says:

      Thanks for your comment! You’re right… the plight of the North Korean people is tragic and yet fascinating at the same time. From what I’ve read and heard, it seems that by now most people in NK realize they are in a pretty desperate situation compared to the rest of the world, but they can’t really do anything about it. They could leave, but the success rate of leaving and actually being safe is pretty low–and if they leave alone, their family who is left behind will suffer for their “treason.” If you’re interested, here’s a pretty interesting interview with some high school age NKoreans who are now refugees in the South. Their stories are heartbreaking, but at the same time, these young people are so inspirational in their attitudes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQaGZe13QDk
      Vanessa recently posted..The Dark Side of Teaching in Korea: or Am I a Hypocrite?My Profile

      • Audrey says:

        Thanks for sharing the video, Vanessa! Is this the one that you guys were working on? It’s such a great look at what it’s like once they make it out – it seems the plight only continues even being in SK. I do hope they are able to feel more ‘at home’ over time.

        • Vanessa says:

          Unfortunately, our video isn’t going to be quite as well produced. haha. We’re still working on translating ours… it’s about two hours long of straight interview. But interesting tidbit: the man we interviewed said he was considered “well-off” but his family still had to make ddeok (rice cakes) with bark. What a different world.
          Vanessa recently posted..Why We Chose Korea: The Honest AnswerMy Profile

  • Such a lovely post. Got chills…
    I spent 3 years working on my grandpa’s memoirs with him. We recently ‘published’ them for the family to read, and now everyone is asking about all these stories we apparently missed… so gramps is keen to get some more stories written down. He has such a unique history, a story that isn’t really told in any other medium because it isn’t glamourous or popularized in any way – he is from Northern Manitoba in Canada. The stories he has are fascinating…
    Thanks for sharing your story!

    • Vanessa says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Colleen! How wonderful that you’re giving your grandpa the chance to share his precious memories with the world. I’m sure that means so much to him, not to mention future generations. When we go back to the US, we’re going to try to video interview our grandparents about their lives. Can’t wait to record the memories!
      Vanessa recently posted..Top 5 Ways I Feel Spoiled By KoreaMy Profile

  • hey, audery you have done great job..
    really very nice and informative article and blog designed… i like it

    thanks for sharing….

  • Tristia says:

    Awww! This made me cry! What a beautiful experience =)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge