Tens of thousands of North Koreans have risked everything to escape their country. Their journey is fraught and they are vulnerable to abuse by brokers, police, and others who exploit North Korean men and women as a source of income.
Arrival south of the DMZ doesn’t end their struggles. The two Koreas have grown markedly different. Language, customs, clothes, and self-presentation have diverged to a point where a new arrival from the North feels the difference with every interaction.
It’s hardly surprising that many of the 34,000 North Koreans in the South report feeling lonely and isolated. They miss family, cooking, and familiar landscapes. To ease the pain, some actively reconnect with the North, turning memories into action.
Why do North Koreans’ memories – their intimate reproductions of the past – unsettle South Korean society? And why do these things matter for the future of the Korean peninsula?
Refugees fleeing conflict or persecution organize belongings into survival items and objects of sentimental value. Survival items – money, food, and mobile phones – are traded, consumed, and used in exchange for safe passage. Refugees use sentimental objects – photos and family keepsakes – to reconnect with their homeland.
North Korean refugees are unusual in that they often flee their country with only the clothes on their back. They leave behind any objects that may suggest they are escaping North Korea. With few tangible items to connect them to home, their memories take on a heightened importance in the destination country.
But North Koreans in South Korea are a suspect community. They are from an enemy state, and their memories and attempts to reconnect to friends and family in the North are politicized south of the DMZ.
Recollections of home, of births, marriages, and deaths become contested sites as political and social forces shape and circumscribe how new arrivals reinvent themselves and how they talk about their erstwhile home.
North Koreans’ lives in South Korea are monitored and commented on as part of a broad disciplining process designed to mold new arrivals into good – non-communist – citizens. This process also impacts on their ability to emotionally reconnect to North Korea. North Koreans’ memories are a battleground between South Korean expectations of how they should behave and the ways that new arrivals want to be understood.
North Koreans have entered the public eye through invitations to appear on television talk shows, through social media, and by writing books documenting their lives in the North and their escape. A North Korean who steps into the public eye is praised for stories that describe a journey from struggle to salvation; singular narratives that endorse a binary of North Korea as provincial, corrupted, and an international pariah, while South Korea is advanced, welcoming and a model society.
Many North Koreans in exile do not have such dramatic and shocking stories. Some simply do not wish for the attention. Individuals reluctant to perform their gratitude are not accorded the same financial opportunities and social acclaim. Instead, most North Koreans in South Korea remember the home country privately or in protected spaces.
Our research shows, for example, that some use ancestral rites to reconnect with family in North Korea. These ceremonies are adapted to allow for the difficulties of venerating the dead far from burial sites. Instead of the customary photo of the deceased, for instance, a sketch is placed with food offerings.
Others reconnect with their homeland through borderland activism. They conduct group ancestor worship ceremonies at the heavily fortified DMZ, making offerings to deceased family at the most northern point in South Korea. Still others organize balloon launches across the border, ferrying messages of hope and essential items into North Korea.
Civil society organizations in South Korea provide crucial spaces for some North Koreans to remember more painful aspects of the past, if they so desire, and to feel a connection to their family and former communities. Sharing testimonies as part of human rights documentation efforts offers hope that redress for past injustices might be possible, while also soothing the guilt many feel about the fate of family members left behind.
NGOs also facilitate exhibitions and performances by migrant artists to display their own interpretations of loss and violence, as well as positive memories of love, family, and celebration, adding crucial nuance to the public record about what it was like to live in North Korea. More recently, new media have provided opportunities for North Korean migrants to exercise greater agency in their storytelling, free from the filters imposed by South Korean television producers and editors.
Yet public memory acts and civil society record-creation are vulnerable to political currents. The Moon Jae-in government targets North Korean memory practices as part of a broader effort to appease Pyongyang. By banning balloon launches and seeking to stifle civil society’s documentation of North Korean life, South Korea’s president shuts down avenues for reconnecting with home.
North Koreans escaping their country don’t abandon their longing for home. And this simple point matters if the two Koreas are ever going to become one again.
Memories of North Korea – the good and the bad, the joy and sorrow – are part of the same experience of country, community and family that needs to be expressed and understood. Emphasizing singular narratives of suffering and silencing – even tacitly – positive memories of life in North Korea further victimizes North Koreans and contributes to a simplistic imagining of the country and its people.
Stifling exiles’ efforts to reconnect to their home, whether through activism or storytelling, further deepens a divide already 70 years entrenched. Depriving North Koreans of the richness of their memories allows for a one-sided view of the North and its people to become the dominant narrative.
If North Koreans are only passive victims, how can they ever contribute to inter-Korean reconciliation? If North Korea is only a place of misery and sorrow, what part can it play in a unified Korea?