LOS ANGELES - There are some 190 North Korean refugees living in the United States, according to the Refugee Processing Center. But there may be many more who do not claim refugee status, and who are struggling to adjust to their new lives.
Among those are Sammy Hyun.
"In the U.S. it's capitalism,” he said. “It's not easy to adjust because the ideologies are so different. But I don't regret leaving North Korea. I don't miss North Korea."
Hyun's life in North Korea haunted him during his first years in the U.S.
“I had nightmares,” he said. “In the dreams, I'm in North Korea, trying to escape, and they're trying to catch me. Then, the nightmares stopped."
While Hyun no longer has family in North Korea, most refugees do leave loved ones behind and are in constant fear for them.
"That's a very serious crime in North Korea,” said Sokeel Park, who works with North Korean defectors, “to have left the country without permission and especially then to make it all the way to an enemy country like South Korea or the United States. You basically put a lot [of people] in danger being accused of being a spy or something like that."
Young Koo Kim is a pastor who works with North Korean refugees.
"They have lived in the North Korean culture of distrust for a long time," Kim said, adding that they are also used to living in an environment where every aspect of their lives is controlled.
"The North Koreans have the mindset if the government gives you food, you eat,” he said. “If you are told to die, you die."
Reasons for leaving
Some of the North Koreans who have escaped send money and communicate with their loved ones back home about the outside world, Park said. As a result, those fleeing North Korea now leave for reasons other than survival.
"Nowadays,” Park said, “especially for some of the young North Korean refugees, you have more people that say that they were frustrated with the system in North Korea and the lack of freedoms."
Hyun is one such example.
"I left North Korea not because of the people or the land,” he said. “The reason I left was because of the government."
Hyun says that if Korea becomes united, he will visit, but America is his home now.