Former refugees help recent defectors adapt to South Seoha Lee

Since the end of World War II, the Korean Peninsula has been divided. Partitioned in 1945 — the North under Soviet occupation and the South under U.S. occupation — the nations, still in conflict, have struggled for decades to achieve a peaceful relationship.

In the years since the divide, more than 30,000 people from the North have escaped through China and come to South Korea for a new beginning. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people defecting has drastically declined due to increased border security. Before the outbreak, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s regime had also increased border patrols and added an electrified fence, making escape more difficult.

Those who make it to South Korea go through a government-run, three-month resettlement process. Once they are released, a police officer is assigned to watch them. The work of building a new life in a different Korean culture is up to them.

The relationship between North and South Koreans is complex. As part of a single nation for thousands of years, they share the same language and observe the same traditional holidays. However, the memory of espionage after the Korean War lingers. In South Korea, those from the North must adapt to an unfamiliar capitalist system and culture without any family or friends, while enduring suspicions and prejudice against them.

In 2016, with support from the Rotary Club of Ulsan Daeduck, North Korean immigrants chartered the Rotary Club of Ulsan Freedom — a fitting name for those who risked their lives for their freedom.

Ju Eun Seok, the founder of the Ulsan Freedom club, spent six years in China between crossing the Yalu River in 1997 and arriving in Korea with her son in 2003. Immediately thereafter, she attended college and majored in social work with the aim of helping North Korean defectors adapt to society. From 2010 to 2013, she served as a counselor for defectors in the Ulsan area and supported the early stages of their settlement. “I am as happy as if it happens to me when I see North Koreans getting vocational training, adapting to society, and getting a job,” she says. She currently works as a unification education instructor.

“Life in China had always been anxious and tough because of the fear that I might get discovered and forced to return to North Korea,” Seok says. “My Chinese husband and I had to frequently flee during the night to avoid the crackdowns by Chinese officials. It was difficult to adapt, even after the arrival in Korea. I could not understand what people were saying — they used unfamiliar capitalism terms such as ‘stock market’ or ‘investment.’ English words had become integrated into everyday conversation.”

However, Seok says many South Korean people helped her and other defectors. Rotary clubs offered scholarships and supported their settlement. After she spent a few years participating with Rotary clubs in Ulsan, the then-governor of District 3721, Hae-Sang Choi, suggested to her that Rotary could be a starting point for others to build relationships with the community.

Today, the Rotary Club of Ulsan Freedom is active in serving its community along with other local clubs. In addition to supporting new immigrants and helping them acclimate, members work with a local orphanage to help the staff care for children. On holidays like Chuseok (Thanksgiving), Seollnal (New Year’s Day), and Christmas, the club invites North Korean immigrants and local low-income families to share foods and presents, wear holiday costumes, and enjoy time together in order to ease the feeling of alienation and create a sense of belonging. “We call ourselves ‘unification already in existence,’” Ju Eun Seok says. “We believe our activities will make it easier for the people of the South to accept people from the North without prejudice, and the people from the North will feel that they can be accepted, as they see us serving as proud members of the community.”

Seok’s club is one of many working to make the transition for immigrants a positive experience. Rotary clubs in South Korea have long supported defectors from North Korea in a variety of ways — by building schools for youth, offering scholarships, and providing free health checks and dental care. During the pandemic, five clubs (Ulsan-Dongbu, Ulsan-Jeil, Ulsan-Namsan, Ulsan-Muryong, Ulsan Freedom) have delivered quarantine kits to 580 North Korean immigrants in the Ulsan area. With help from people like Seok and their Rotary clubs, lives continue to be transformed for good.