They arrive undernourished and barely able to read. They marvel at credit cards, can’t stomach pizza, and when the lights dim in movie theaters, they panic, fearing kidnappers will strike. Welcome to the world of the North Korean defector in South Korea, where an ever-growing wave of refugees is sneaking over the border and struggling to keep up with capitalist life.
About 15,000 defectors have settled in South Korea, 4,000 in the last 2 years alone. Seoul doesn’t officially encourage them, but once across, they are quietly granted citizenship, given an apartment, and enrolled in much-needed classes. Even then many struggle to assimilate, hampered by paranoia and guilt. “These things really weigh them down,” said the principal of one defector school. “They cry for the family they left behind.”