South Korea faces an increasing influx of North Korean refugees. In the past two years, more than 1,000 North Koreans have fled hunger and political oppression in their homeland and have made their way to the South. Just last month more than two dozen refugees arrived in Seoul after seeking asylum in foreign embassies in Beijing. VOA's Amy Bickers in Seoul recently met Hong Beom, a North Korean who left his home and became a South Korean citizen two years ago.
Hong Beom is a 32-year-old Korean with a gentle presence and an easy smile. He lives alone on the outskirts of Seoul, in one of the many huge apartment compounds that ring this city of 13 million people.
His home, in a large concrete building, is modest, with almost no furniture, except for a small black dressing table with pearl inlay, a matching wardrobe and a traditional Korean bedroll which he stows away during the day. He owns two computers, a laptop and a desktop, and enjoys surfing the Internet. He studies architectural and product design at local college.
For Mr. Hong, a North Korean refugee, this is paradise. "I am happy because I am free. I can do the things I choose to do because I have many choices. In North Korea, one lives within a fixed frame. When I was there, I could not put my thoughts into action. Here there are free choices, such as what to study. I can say that I am happy, very happy," he says.
As a child in North Korea, Hong Beom had no inkling that he would one day make the drastic decision to permanently leave his homeland. "Until I was ten years old, I was content," he says. "Back then, the food distribution system worked fine, and in school, on traditional holidays, children received presents. We were also given extra snacks. But as time passed the food problem emerged and made life very difficult."
Mr. Hong is referring to a nationwide famine which began in the early 1990s and continues to this day. It is the consequence of a series of natural disasters coupled with economic mismanagement. North Korea now depends heavily on food aid to feed its 23 million people and food remains scarce.
In his late twenties, Hong Beom decided to leave North Korea and all that was familiar to find a better life elsewhere. It was 1996, the height of the famine.
Hong Beom, along with his parents and older brother, set out on a week-long journey to the border. They waded across a river into Jilin province in China. The journey was hard, not to mention risky. For Mr. Hong and other North Koreans, traveling abroad without official permission is a serious crime, and those who are caught face severe punishments, including prison terms.
The journey was extra-treacherous for Mr. Hong because he is disabled. As a locomotive engineer in North Korea, he lost his right arm in an electrical accident which also badly damaged his left foot.
But after arriving in China, Mr. Hong was determined to move on to a place where he could establish a permanent home. He knew he would have to go elsewhere, since China does not grant refugee status to North Korean asylum seekers and instead views them as economic migrants. "I felt like a person without a country, which in my mind is like being an animal. I felt I was continuously under the watch of both the Chinese and North Korean police and was always in danger," he says. "I kept thinking I wanted to go to a new fatherland and I thought about the United States or Canada. But since it seemed to difficult, I went to South Korea."
Mr. Hong emigrated via Mongolia, which like Thailand, the Philippines and other Asian nations, provides diplomatic assistance to North Korean refugees bound for Seoul. Once he arrived there, the South Korea government placed him in a reception center to help him work through the stress of escaping and to prepare him for life in this fast-paced, capitalist nation that is so vastly different from the communist North. "For us asylum seekers, the South Korean government also provides a home and helps us adapt by sending us to a job training center. We choose the courses we want and then we apply for job," he says.
Despite the program and the assistance, Mr. Hong, like other refugees, says that adjustment process is difficult and takes a great deal of time. "The lifestyle gap between the two countries is so great. Even if it means I have to sleep less, I feel like a need to keep running to get caught up. It is hard to explain, but basically it is a difference of culture and intellect. North Koreans who come here have to adapt," he says. "Appearances, morality and knowledge vary between the two nations. It is impossible for me to live as I did before."
These profound differences make Mr. Hong feel like an outsider. That feeling is underscored by the fact that most of his acquaintances do not know his history. "Some people are friendly, but if people do not open their hearts, they do not know each other's inner feelings. No one knows I am a refugee," he says. "Even with my neighbors, I do not reveal my past and we have little interaction."
Luckily for Mr. Hong, who left behind most of his close friends and relatives when he fled North Korea, his parents and brother have also successfully made the perilous journey to freedom. They too, are now South Korean citizens.
Mr. Hong believes the number of asylum bids will continue to increase as life in the North grows harder. But he is surprised at the dozens of refugees that have recently stormed embassies in Beijing. He says that such a move clearly reveals their identities to North Korean authorities, who could take revenge on the refugees' families.
He says he was careful to slip away quietly to spare those he left behind from interrogation and mistreatment. "In my case, and in those of others that I know, we were very careful to go through a third country first and then to come to South Korea. But those people who openly identify themselves and enter embassies out in the open put their families at great risk," he says.
Mr. Hong says his thoughts are frequently with those he left in the North and the grinding poverty with which they struggle. He believes that much of the food aid donated for the people ends up in the hands of the North Korean military, and that makes him angry. "The people of North Korea have not committed any sin and they are innocent. I want to provide food aid to them. I wish I could give them two of my three daily meals. But if I think of the politics and those in power, that kind of thought disappears. The United States and other nations say we should help North Korea. But the food aid ends up with the military. I believe that only a small amount goes to the people," he says.
Mr. Hong says he hopes to see dramatic changes in the North's totalitarian political system, though he is not optimistic that those changes will come soon. "The North Korean government should be abolished. The North Korean citizens' problems are largely due to the government failing to fulfill its responsibilities. I have seen what the people there are going through and how much pain they are suffering and I believe the Kim Jong Il government should be overturned."
Mr. Hong says he feels powerless to help those he left behind. Returning to Pyongyang would be very dangerous, since his asylum bid could be considered treasonous.
Mr. Hong's focus now is on creating a better future for himself and adjusting to the many new challenges he faces. He plans to become a product designer or architect when he completes his studies. He also hopes to learn English and Chinese and says he dreams of someday traveling abroad.