North Korean defector describes her crazy escape and adjustment to modern life

Life inside a communist country with a controlling dictator for a leader is not only suffocating and dangerous; it’s also vastly different from life in developed countries elsewhere across the globe.

Joo Yang, who defected from North Korea in 2010, did an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit Wednesday and explained what it was like to leave the oppressive country and experience life in the outside world.

North Korean defectors have to escape the country covertly. Some of them were basically brainwashed by propaganda growing up — one defector who spoke to UK newspaper The Independent said she was raised to believe that Kim Jong-il was a god who could read her mind.

Yang joined her family in South Korea in 2011. An NGO helped her travel through a “modern-day underground railroad” to escape North Korea.

Here are some of the observations she made about life in North Korea versus life on the outside:

Q: You say that your parents defected first. Did the North Korean government know about this and did you face any repercussions?

In North Korea, it’s very hard to know the weather forecast because of frequent power cuts, unlike in South Korea.

So we made a cover story that my father had died at sea and my mother and other family members had left our house to try to find any remains of my father.

So I was in our house by myself, but the secret police came to ask me questions. I stuck to the story and told them that my family had become separated, and stonewalled their questions.

I knew that the secret police used people in the neighborhood to monitor my behavior, but I just pretended not to notice and carried on living my life.

Q: What was it like to go from a world with very little of today’s modern technology to a world with the Internet and its capabilities to connect you with people and information all over the world?

First it was kind of like arriving in the modern world in a time machine.

There were so many things I didn’t know, but as I learnt one thing after another by trying them, that was really fun.

Even typing on a computer was really novel and fun at first.

It’s been three years, but even now there’s still a lot of new things.

Q: What kind of feelings did you have when you arrived in South Korea and saw the quality of life that many people have? How did you adjust to this?

When I got here I felt like South Koreans could eat the kind of food that North Koreans eat on special occasions (명절, festival days) even every day.

Most ordinary North Koreans eat ‘corn-rice’ as their staple food, but that is rough. But on special days like Kim Il-sung’s birthday some people can eat white rice. In fact some people can’t even eat white rice on those special days.

But in South Korea, even homeless people eat white rice!

As for how I adjusted… well it tastes pretty good, so I’m adjusting well! Even though sometimes I miss North Korean food too…

Q: How are North Korean weddings celebrated?

North Korean women really want to enjoy romance.

In North Korea we wear traditional Korean-style clothes for wedding dresses (Joson-ot, or “hanbok” in South Korea), but more recently because of the effects of foreign media, some North Korean women want to wear a white wedding dress at their wedding!

But that has not been possible in North Korea yet. So people are adapting the traditional style wedding dress and making it look more beautiful.

Another thing is that normally the wedding ceremony is done in the house of the groom and the bride, once each. But if it’s too expensive to get all the food for that, then sometimes they combine it and just do it once in one side’s house.

Q: What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to adjust to? How shocked were you when you realized the DPRK propaganda was (for the most part), entirely false?

There were a lot of new culture shocks to get used to and understand, for instance toilets and ATMs, and using an electronic card to ride the subway… Escalators, elevators, all of those things. haha.

And in South Korea they use a lot of ‘Konglish’, or borrowed words, so I had to get used to that.

Q: Wow. Toilets? That’s surprising. I thought North Koreans (for the most part), had running water. Does it only exist in Pyongyang?

In North Korea, I never saw a sit-down toilet. We always used squat toilets.

So when I first saw a sit-down toilet when I was in China, I didn’t know what to do. I actually climbed up and used it as if it was a squat toilet.

When I was in the South Korean National Intelligence Service debriefing facility [that all NKorean defectors go through] the South Korean officials used to plead with the defectors not to climb up on the toilet seat, but many defectors still wanted to because they felt they couldn’t go to the toilet otherwise! hahaha

If you ask any North Korean defector, they will also know what you mean if you say “bidet shower”. That’s because we’ve all experienced making the mistake of using a bidet wrong the first time we saw one, and getting water all over ourselves. I did that once too. But now we have a bidet in my house!

Q: Do the people of North Korea really believe that Kim Jong Il and his father and grandfather actually have superhuman powers or do they just say they do out of fear?

I think that people believe it kind of like people believe in the bible. Well, that’s the case for children.

But when you grow up, you realise those stories do not make sense, but you still have to memorize it well for the school tests in order to graduate from school well.

More recently, amongst close friends, people will complain that this kind of ideological education will not actually help you in your life. I felt like that too.