Refugees experience financial hardships and feelings of isolation exacerbated by a lack of community as old prejudices and suspicions linger
When Chang Ho Kim was living in North Korea, information trickled in from China about the world outside the closed country. Through the lens of pirated movies, he says, America had looked to Kim like a very rich and luxurious place.
In 1997, at the height of a famine that killed around one million people, Kim escaped with his wife into China, then Mongolia, then to South Korea.
Defectors from the North automatically become South Korean citizens after a mandatory three-month transition that is part debriefing, part re-education. Most North Korean defectors in the South stand out, and the Kims were no exception. They have distinct accents, and are often shorter and slighter with darker, sallow skin from years of malnutrition. Its hard to avoid South Koreans prejudice and suspicions that North Koreans are spies.
Remembering the Hollywood images of the US, the Kims decided to make their way to the US illegally through a broker.
But for the Kims, and others like them, life in the US is not necessarily easier.
The American celluloid dream comes with skyrocketing price tags. North Koreans arrive with little or no experience of bills, rent, and no means to cope with the lack of social services and health insurance that illegal immigrants must navigate.
American life is so hard. Money, money, money, said Pastor Young Gu Kim, an evangelical South Korean immigrant who helps defectors. Some defectors told me, Oh pastor, sometimes I miss it over there.
Like Chang Ho Kim, many North Koreans enter illegally and settle in Los Angeles, amid the large population of ethnic Koreans. Nearly 200 former North Koreans live in Los Angeles, advocacy groups say, but exact numbers are unknown.
South Korea has an enormous program to resettle North Koreans. Its basically a yearlong program, but then it goes on beyond that in many ways where there are grants for education, for housing, and all kinds of things, said Lindsay Lloyd , who currently leads the George W Bush Institutes Freedom in North Korea project. So the scale of their programs to bring these people into South Korea, compared to what happens here in the US, its just radically, radically different.
In South Korea, refugees received a few thousand dollars to start their new lives and learned skills most people take for granted: grocery shopping or using an ATM.
When refugees come to the United States … the US government only provides about six months worth of support for them, Lloyd added. Its done through groups like Catholic charities and others that really just address the basics: find a place to live, get some basic healthcare, maybe some rudimentary English lessons, a first job, that kind of thing.
The State Department has documented 192 North Koreans entering the US from 1 January 2002 to 1 January 2016. But this only includes refugees who have obtained green cards through the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004.
As undocumented immigrants, Kims family live in a two-bedroom apartment in LAs Koreatown. Previously, they shared the unit with another North Korean family who have since moved back to South Korea. Kims wife works full-time at a massage parlor where he works part-time. Korean churches and community groups offer aid and small cash payments from time to time.
A couple years ago, the family was about to be deported, said Kim, who has changed his name since arriving in the US. But they were able to stay on a U visa for crime victims. The visa enabled them to receive food stamps, the best thing about America, he said. He thinks the country should do more for North Koreans, providing money and benefits.
Lloyd said Kims thinking was not surprising coming from someone who lived in a Communist state.
Its understandable that somebody coming out of that background would have very different expectations about what the government is supposed to do for them.
North Koreans in the US experience feelings of isolation, experts say, thats exacerbated by a lack of community. A large tide of South Koreans emigrated to the US in the 1960s and 1970s, after the Korean war, and old prejudices and suspicions toward North Koreans linger.
In October 2014, the Bush Institute at the George W Bush Presidential Center published a qualitative survey, US-Based North Korean Refugees. It found that even those on a path to citizenship lived almost entirely within Korean communities, the survey reported. However, nearly all also said they did not feel completely accepted or included, and often felt looked down upon or pitied.
North Koreans, South Koreans everyone thinks its the same people, Pastor Kim said, but the two groups are so different.
Ok Soon Joo is one of the fortunate ones with a green card. In September 2011, she arrived in the US. After escaping from North Korea on her second try, she spent several years in China, married to a Chinese man. She eventually escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand, where she was able to phone an aunt who had made it to America several months earlier.
Luckily for me it only took 10 months to reach America, she said. Because she had late-stage stomach cancer, her application was expedited. She arrived in Colorado and immediately had surgery. The cancer has been treated, but overall, shes not in great health.
When she left her small town in North Korea, she left her 12-year-old son and husband behind. Later she learned that they ran out of food and the boy went missing.
Joo spent years in China during which she had a six-year old daughter with the Chinese man. But she lived there undocumented and has no proof that she is the childs mother. She sends the girl a couple hundred dollars a month through her Chinese grandparents.
Life was hard in China, Joo said. When youre in China, as a woman, your problems become worse. Theres sexual trafficking and sexual slavery. There are people who are there to exploit the women that defect. Because you dont have a Chinese identification card on you, you have to do what the broker wants … You lose any shred of human dignity.