Jieun Lee '21. Photo by Lee Pellegrini

When Carroll School of Management sophomore Jieun Lee and her sister, Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences junior Jueun Lee, volunteered to teach English to North Korean defectors in the Lees’ native South Korea this past summer, their mother made no secret of her fear for the family’s safety.

“My mom disagreed with our decision because she was scared that the North Koreans might be spies and possibly put my family’s security in danger,” said Jieun.

On the recommendation of a friend who had worked there, the sisters volunteered at an organization in Seoul called Woorihana—a Korean word meaning “together as one,” referring to the unity of the Korean people—which aids in the education of North Korean refugees. During their two weeks of service, the Lee sisters assisted in the creation of an English textbook based on the experiences of the North Korean defectors, taught English lessons, and conducted one-on-one tutoring sessions for approximately 30 college students.

Three of the students the Lees taught over the summer visited Boston last week as part of a tour of U.S. universities, organized through Woorihana, to give presentations about their personal experiences living in North Korea, China, and South Korea. Although the sisters were unable to attend the event, they are grateful for the memories they have of those two weeks, and for what they learned about the defectors’ lives.

“It was an amazing experience learning about the reality of North Korea and the challenges these North Korean defectors faced crossing the border,” said Jieun. “The situations these students talked about were very different from what I learned from the news. It was an eye-opening experience.”

The Lees had never met anyone from North Korea, but their interest in doing this type of volunteer work was partly rooted in family history: Their grandmother had lived in what is now considered North Korea before the country was divided.

During their service, the sisters heard stories of the North Koreans’ journeys to South Korea and their efforts to keep in limited contact with family and friends—utilizing Chinese phones and keeping calls under five minutes—who remained in North Korea. If the North Korean government detected one of their calls, the North Korean students told the Lees, the soldiers might come to search their family’s apartment. The defectors also tried to support their families by sending money once a year.

“These defectors don’t come to South Korea directly; they first go to China,” said Jieun. “Defectors crossing the 38th parallel [the line that divides South and North Korea] are very rare. Many defectors buy a broker whom they meet in front of the Yalu River, in order to cross the border into China together. One student crossed the border with a soldier whom she bribed.

“After they get to China, they need to be very careful because if they get caught by a Chinese soldier they are automatically sent back to North Korea. Once defectors arrive in South Korea by way of China, the South Korean government brings them to a confidential government location to undergo a thorough investigation to find out whether they are spies or not. If the defectors pass the investigation, they are given government aid such as college tuition, food, and housing. They are also given South Korean citizenship and their passports say Republic of Korea, not North Korea.”

Jieun’s previous familiarity with North Korea consisted mainly of dictator Kim Jong-un and the controversy over North Korea’s nuclear weapons, she said, because these were the central topics regarding North Korea covered in South Korean news. Curious about North Korea and its people, she watched YouTube videos to see what she could learn about everyday life in North Korea.

“But the only videos available were of the lives of the wealthy class who go grocery shopping, live in newly furnished apartments, and so on,” she said. “By watching these videos and the news, I believed North Koreans’ living conditions had improved and that the citizens were happy with their system of the government.

“My thoughts changed entirely after talking to the students. I learned how striking the poverty still is, how average citizens are facing starvation daily due to low wages, and how military control is restricting the citizens from watching non-North Korean television or wearing what they want to wear. One student told me that she received a Japanese skirt as a gift from her aunt who escaped many years ago. She wore it to school and on her way back home a soldier shredded it with scissors. Another student told me he and his family escaped just to get a hot meal.”

Jueun was similarly moved “to appreciate what I have” after her volunteer work with the refugees, who “basically had no freedom at all in North Korea”—at a very young age, she noted, they were assigned to do work after the school day ended.

“I think it’s really sad how two groups of people who reside in a relatively small area of the world live completely different lifestyles.”

However much the North Koreans want the country reunited, Jieun sees their views as very different than those of most South Koreans. “The majority of South Koreans, especially the younger generation, don’t really want reunification because of many obvious economic and political challenges that would come.”

—Christine Balquist | University Communications