Written by Tae-Seop Heo (21 January 2013)
Translated by Hanee Park (01 July 2013)
When I was still in North Korea, I had lived closed to an infamous concentration camp. The Government did not allow those who were released to go back to their hometown or the town in which they were residing, but rather they assigned them a new living place close to the camp. As a consequence, it gave me opportunities to befriend with many of them.
In the early 80’s, the national head of the State Security Department, Byung Ha Kim, was deposed due to the acts of anti-party and counterrevolution. As a result, numerous people were released from the camp, many of whom restored the honour. In fact, among the released were several of my friends. The concentration camp released many of the innocent prisoners who were imprisoned as a result of Kim’s abuse of power while in the office. Kim became “recycled” as a sacrifice of the dictatorship so as to settle the public sentiment.
Usually, people sympathize those who suffered one or more decades in a prison camp. However, this is only a single-sided perspective towards the released prisoners. When looked more closely, they all exhibit distinct characteristics. Firstly, they take a very cautious approach to dealing with others and are habituated to hiding their inner motives that are usually strikingly different from the outer. Secondly, their mine and emotions are severely scarred. I have come to realize that one’s sense of victimization never leads to healthy mindset.
It is not difficult to realize that these individuals look at society and those around them with hostility. Moreover, they can have indifferent cruelty to their neighbours and companions, when it comes to protecting or finding their benefits. It would be maybe more accurate to say there are no companions, but only the competitors for the struggle for their survival. With these reasons, some say never to deal with those who have experiences of being in a concentration camp.
Usually, four to five years are necessary to restore their damaged habit that formed during vicious survival battles at camps. For some, it takes more than a decade to remove the old prison mentality. Through many interactions with them, I have come to realize the importance of “renewed happiness” that plays an essential key to desensitize their feeling of victimization that had once fulfilled their mind while withstanding irrational process of desperate struggles.
Looking back upon those experiences, I am reminded how one’s environment can act as a bowl. Just as how the content follows the shape of the bowl, the power of environment is absolutely influential to one’s life.
-The Transition Period for North Korean Defectors
One can summarize North Korean defectors largely with two common characteristics. One is that they are individuals who are liberated from the valley of death, in the country of communist dictatorship that granted them a subhuman life; and the other is that they are at discord with the capitalist society, in which they struggle to adapt to.
Such challenging struggle against capitalist system in South Korea has revealed a reality in which the defectors return to North, or leave for other foreign countries. Moreover, it is not uncommon to hear the prejudiced opinions of South Koreans towards North Koreans.
However, a missing puzzle that the South Korean society needs to identify in dealing with North Koreans is that the latter has to undergo a transition period in which their old mindset and habits of socialist system become renewed into those of the individualist. It is not easy to instantly discard their mindset and habits of North Korea, which is not distant from a feudal state in Middle Ages.
That is what I believe to be the disappointing fact when the Koreans of South look at those of North. However, acknowledging the necessary transition period for North Korean defectors to adjust to the new society would give a way to avoid conservative prejudice.