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N. Korean Refugees Tell Tales of Ordinary, Desperate Lives

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Sokeel Park sees the effects of North Korea's repressive government every day. He lives in South Korea, but works for an NGO named Liberty in North Korea. His job is to debrief those who've managed to leave the North and help them start new lives in the South.

Park says that with so much focus on the country's nuclear weapons and leadership, it's easy to forget about the 24 million people going about their everyday lives. Those lives are heavily controlled by the North Korean government, citizens are told where to work, where to live, and are not allowed to leave.

But every year, a few thousand people do leave, and many are assisted by Park.

Park talks with Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin about the lives of refugees and what it's like living inside North Korea.


Interview Highlights

On escaping from North Korea

"Basically people are dealing with either a frozen river, or trying to wade or swim across a river into China. And obviously, they have to deal with the border security on both sides — there's maybe a couple of ways that people can deal with that. The main way is, actually, through corruption. And there are some people who just take the risk and try to make a run for it — but it's a really desperate measure to take that."

On the North Korean government

"The regime — because it completely prioritizes political stability and maintaining its power and control over the society — they get into people's lives to a level that is probably unprecedented around the world. And so they try to control what kind of jobs you can have, what kind of education you can have. And the result of that is that the North Korean economy is even poorer than it was in the 1970s and the Cold War. I would actually describe it as an enforced poverty."

On immigrating to South Korea

"A lot of the North Korean refugee's first experience in South Korea is Incheon International Airport — they describe surprise at even the automatic flushing toilets, even just the marble floor that they have in that airport — all of these things are surprising. It's almost like waking up out of a time capsule after 50 years. It's actually South Korea that's changed, so when North Korean refugees actually come here, more than a culture shock, it's actually kind of a generational or time shock."

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