After three years living alone in South Korea paranoid and scared to talk to anyone North Korean defector Kang Ok Sil decided she'd had enough. She wanted to make a real effort to settle in her newly adopted country. She decided to marry a South Korean man.
"Life was difficult. I didn't know how things worked and I was lost," recalls Kang, who escaped to South Korea in 2002 via Thailand. "I realized that [marrying a South Korean] was the fastest way to create a new life."
Kang, 40, is happy with her choice so happy, in fact, that she now helps her husband Hong Seung Woo with the matchmaking agency he runs to connect North Korean women and South Korean men. Hong opened the business in 2006, a year after he and his wife were married. As of last September, there were officially over 17,000 North Koreans living in South Korea, triple the number from 2004, according to the Unification Ministry, the government agency in Seoul in charge of North Korean affairs. Almost 80% of North Koreans defecting today are women. "This is a shortcut for their adaptation," says Kang.
The couple's agency, Nam Nam Buk Nyo, a name taken from a traditional Korean proverb saying that handsome men are from the South and beautiful women live in the North, has matched 250 women like Kang with South Korean husbands in four years. Hong says there are at least nine other similar agencies operating around the country, most of them established in 2008, and he estimates about 1,000 similar matches have been made.
Until recently, most North Koreans landing in the South, like Kang, had little or no contact with the outside world before they left home. Figuring out how to integrate into the fast-paced, capitalist world of Seoul can take years. Although the two Koreas share a history and some cultural values, North and South Korea have been divided since the 1950-53 Korean War. Before the North's famine in the 1990s, only a privileged few with money and connections to border guards could make the crossing. ("If you pay enough, you can get anyone out," says Kang.) After decades under the strictest and most repressive totalitarian state in the world, the first defectors that arrived in the South were "always suspicious," she says, and most had left relatives behind who could be sentenced to prison or even death for having a defector in the family. "They did not only complain of difficulties finding jobs, prejudice and adapting to life in the south," says Park Yun Sook, a professor of social welfare at World Cyber College in Gwangju who works with North Korean defectors. "They felt guilt all the time and were always scared their relatives might be punished."
The crush of the famine, however, which is believed to have killed up to 2 million people, sent thousands of North Koreans fleeing to China and, eventually, to South Korea through church groups or brokers. In the past three or four years, many new arrivals have already had family or some connection to South Korea. "The most envied ones [in North Korea today] are those who have relatives in the South and get remittances," says Park. "So now when [North Koreans] come, they are confident and eager to integrate." Ju Seong Soon, a 25-year-old North Korean woman, studied English and computer technology after arriving in Seoul in 2007 and got married to a South Korean man through a matchmaking company last year. "I wanted to learn the language and the culture faster and feel more secure," says Ju. "On top of that, my husband is very sweet." (North Korean men, adds Ju, are colder and want to be treated as kings.)
Matchmaking companies like Kang and Hong's play a uniquely symbiotic role in South Korea, helping balance the nation's surplus of bachelors. In recent years, more male children have been born to South Korean households than girls, the result of sex screening and selective abortion due to the preference of couples for male babies. In recent years, many of these men have taken home wives from other parts of Asia, a solution that has left many couples grappling with a big cultural gap. Marrying a North Korean woman, Hong says, is a better fit. "They share our same traditions," he says.
Marriage, of course, is not the only path toward assimilation. As the number of North Koreans living in the South has grown, support networks have too. The government has created work and study programs geared toward North Koreans, and churches help by providing practical information and coaching to cope with culture shock. Dozens of civic groups are also trying to raise awareness or fight for North Korean defectors' rights and several North Korean newspapers, radio channels and associations have been set up in the past few years. Kang's 18-year-old niece, who arrived in South Korea in June, is already studying English, math and computing and is preparing to go to university in Seoul. Finding a husband is probably not at the top of her list. Says Kang, watching her niece check her e-mail: "She won't have the life we had."