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Scarlet Letter: The stigma of being a “defector”


“My friends thought that North Koreans had horns on the heads. North Korea does conjure up militaristic images like armament and nuclear weapons. A lot of people seem to have prejudice against North Korean defectors. When events like the sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of the Yeongpyeong Island happen, I am afraid that some of the repercussions might fall on me. But I didn’t do those things, I was simply born there…”


Many North Koreans defected from North Korea to escape extreme hunger that began in 1990s.Lee Min-Young was no exception. To reduce the economic burden of the family, she, along with her mother, defected to China, risking both of their lives. She was able to endure the hardship that followed with the clamor for freedom in South Korea where she desperately wanted to be in.
For Min-Young who only completed first grade in the North, schools in South Korea were the venue of a new dream. After successfully arriving in Korea followed by her time in Hanawon, she enrolled in sixth grade as she was thirteen. But her school life turned out to be quite different from her initial expectations. She was subjected to groundless rumors and constant stares from her classmates when they found about her background. “While in school, I felt like a monkey in a zoo,” she recalls. Her classmates, being ignorant about North Korean defectors, called Min-Young jjang-gye, a derogatory term for ethnic Chinese just because she used a North Korean/Chinese accent. According to her, the percentage of defectors who finish elementary, middle and high school in Korea, is only around 10%, and she is one of the lucky ones. Most choose to drop out or attend alternative schools after becoming victims of bullying and verbal assault.


Min-Young also tells us that she faced difficulty dealing with an identity crisis that came about during her childhood. Whenever the inter-Korean relations would deteriorate, her classmates gave her cold stares or called her “b**ch from North Korea” for no reason. Despite the fact that she defected at a young age and received South Korean education, the stigma of being a North Korean, always followed her in the South. Min-Young confesses that it was not easy for her to decide whether she was a North Korean or South Korean. She still refrains from telling her North Korean background due to her deep scars from her childhood.

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