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North Koreans escape to cold reality

By Dan Rivers, CNN
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North Korean refugees struggle
  • Some 17,000 refugees have made journey from North to South Korea
  • Rights group says refugees often arrive with warped expectations
  • Reality is low-paid jobs, discrimination and often alienation

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) -- They've escaped the most repressive regime in the world, but for many North Korean refugees, life outside their closed, totalitarian country is still not easy.

According to the South Korean government, some 17,000 refugees have made the perilous journey from North to South Korea, often via a tortuous route that takes in China, Laos and Thailand.

But Joanna Hosaniak, from the Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights said the refugees often arrive with warped expectations, increasingly based on watching smuggled copies of South Korean soap operas.

"North Koreans, when they watch those DVDs they assume that 'wow south Koreans are living in such a nice country, they have such a beautiful apartments they drive a Mercedes Benz, and so on'," she said.

"So it's very simple ­ they come here and they think this is just like that,­ and it isn't."

The reality is low-paid jobs, discrimination and often alienation.

We visited one factory near Seoul, where 80 percent of the workforce are North Koreans, making cardboard boxes. They work long hours, in freezing winter temperatures, for low pay. ­And these are the lucky ones.

Many simply can't find jobs at all, lacking even the most basic skills. Many are shunned because of their North Korean accents and perceived backwards attitudes.

One woman, who didn't want to give her name for fear of reprisals against her family in the North, told how she arrived three years ago. She left the North to earn more money, and while she is now financially better off in the south, she's paid a price,­ leaving behind her two sons and feeling the pressure of having to survive in a market economy.

"In North Korea, all you need to do is go to work and stand there for eight hours, but here you need to really make an effort to survive. When everyone else here takes one step forward, I feel like we need to take two and that puts a lot of pressure on me," she said.

North Korean refugees who make it to the South, are put through a government reorientation system designed to equip them for life outside a totalitarian state. Just a simple trip to a supermarket can present them with freedoms, choices and problems they'd never imagined in the North. In the North, permission is needed for all but the most local travel. Food choices are extremely limited.

"Many can't understand why they are so many brands of cheese or noodles here­ when in the North there is just one, which few can afford to buy," said Hosaniak.

According to Hosaniak, standards of education in the North are so poor, many adults don't even have the most basic mathematical, reading and writing skills.

The church group Durihana Association offers aid to North Korean defectors. It runs a small school, giving refugees a back-to-basics education. In small classrooms, small groups of students take their very first steps in learning English or using a computer,­ something that is a rare privilege in the north.

"When you explain what the Internet is and what you can do with it, they have no idea, because they only have one TV channel, things like that. It's really mind-blowing," said teacher Ko Han.

"Suddenly they are thrown into one of the most high-tech, wired cities in the world and many can't cope."

One refugee said: "I left my parents, brothers and sisters behind. With each change of season, I miss them more and more, whether its raining, or snowing, I'm thinking of them."

Homesick and struggling to adjust to a new life, which is far from the one she expected.