"Before we start, I want you to promise me something," Lee said, his eyes serious.
A month ago, Lee (a pseudonym) was the first of a series of interviews I had with North Korean defectors living in South Korea. His voice was one of several key firsthand accounts of life under a semi-totalitarian regime, providing me with crucial information for the thesis topic I had been researching for my masters in Social Design: the integration of North Korean defectors in South Korean society.
"Please," he said, "do whatever you can to raise awareness about North Korea. A lot of people don't know what really goes on in there, only hearing about Kim Jong Il or Kim Jong Eun. They don't know about us, the people."
I agreed with him wholeheartedly, and even more so with the events of the past few weeks. There is more to North Korea than its dictator, just as there is more to the United States than our president. Within the boundaries of the closed country is an entire population of young and old, rich and poor, families and friends.
There are still many differences that are difficult to comprehend. Try to imagine what it's like to grow up in a country completely devoid of international contact. Your TV features only channels from your government, your language is entirely free of foreign words. You've been told that your country is the best in the world
Some people leave because they never bought the lie. Some people leave because they discovered the truth. Many leave in search of food or money. There are many reasons a North Korean would decide to cross the boundary into China, but all do so at the risk of their lives. The cost of getting caught by the Chinese or North Korean police is interrogation followed by imprisonment
The few that manage to make it to South Korea are but a small percentage of the hundreds living in hiding in China without citizenship, rights, or protection. They've given up everything to come.
When they do arrive, North Koreans find themselves at the bottom of the South Korean barrel. Their education and skills are not easily applied to South Korean society. South Koreans see North Koreans as foreigners, and North Koreans sometimes see South Koreans as discriminatory and judgmental.
What if there was some way to open the conversation about fundamental differences in the way Koreans think and act?
I am designing a mobile, interactive hub to house the stories of North Korean defectors. I hope to share the stories that have been told to me thus far in an engaging way, highlighting practical and relevant information—from how to order food, to how to manage money. It will be available through the one modern device that nearly all North Korean defectors have—phones.
More than anything, it will be a way to provide a different perspective on sensitive issues to bring focus on the people, not the politics. To see the faces of the North Korean people and see them as people, not as a threat. One person wrote to me anonymously, saying, 'I wish South Koreans could think of us [North and South Koreans] as one people. Like neighbors.' That is my wish as well.
Images courtesy of Sharon Kong.