Late last year, I had the opportunity to sit in the audience of two individuals who made the unfathomably brave and liberating decision to defect from North Korea. Their newly assumed names were Ji Young-Li and Choi Seong-Guk, both had incredible stories to tell, and each of them inspired me to take a moment reflect on my own experiences, privileges, and freedoms. In doing so I established some valuable life lessons.
Adversity can be overcome
I list this lesson first, not only because I think it’s incredibly important to remember, but also because I’d like to establish that I am, in no way, equating any experience of my own to that of Ji Young-Li, Choi Seong-Guk or any other individual living in overtly oppressive conditions.
As Ji Young-Li sat before me that day, dressed in black kitten heels and a fluffy pink coat she told a story that was almost too heart-wrenching to comprehend. When she was aged just 9-years old, North Korea experienced an incredible famine that took the lives of 1.5 million citizens. At the time, her mother’s location was unknown and Young-Li was forced to resort to petty theft to provide food for herself and her two siblings aged 6 and 4. Each night, as they slept, she feared they may die in their sleep from starvation or disease. While telling this story, she stayed admirably composed, but the adversity she experienced rang loudly in her choice of words. Looking into the silent audience of students who sat in awe at what she had endured, Young Li said ‘I spent my childhood in a battlefield…my enemy was hunger.’
It was in the juxtaposition between her heartfelt words and composed demeanor that this first point becomes so undeniably apparent to me. The intention here is not to devalue any struggle or challenge you or I may be faced with, but to emphasize how when consumed by our own challenges, it is easy to lose perspective. A large percent of the time, there is someone who has been through the same adversity or worse and, as Young-Li’s ability to share her story reveals such experiences can be overcome.
Always know your worth
Choi Seong-Guk is North Korea’s first cartoonist. Before he defected the country he had what he thought was a relatively well paid dream job in Pyongyang as an animator. Each month he received the additional privilege 1-kilogram of sugar, 1-kilogram of beef and a bottle of sesame oil. Additionally, each year he was able to choose a ‘gift’ of a new refrigerator, television or bicycle. For Seong-Guk this was a good quality of life, particularly in comparison to those living outside of the capital who were not afforded such luxuries.
He first realized the difference between his own conditions and those of people living outside of North Korea while collaborating with a French animator who had traveled to the country for a project. Around his waist, the foreign animator wore a fanny-pack that one-day Seong-Guk noticed was full of hundreds of U.S. dollar bills (as visitors are not allowed to use North Korean currency) and was left in shock. He asked the animator how he had such an absurd amount of money, assuming it was from some illicit activity, and he simply replied that it was money from his salary. Seong-Guk had been earning $1 a month for his work and had the same level of skill as the French Animator, it was at this moment that he realized he was earning way less than what his work and talent deserved.
This prompted Seong-Guk to quit his job and begin working as a technician, a role in which he bought, repaired and resold used computers, purchasing 3 for $10 and reselling them for $150 each. While working on one computer he discovered a hard disk with a lot of South Korean films on it – something that most North Korean citizens would not have access to. After showing the films to a woman he had a crush on and her family, they quickly ‘fell in love with him’, leadingSeong-Guk to realize that this was something he could make a lot of money from. He began making custom compilations of scenes from South Korean films and television programs, selling them on the black market, and finally receiving more than adequate compensation for his artistic talent.
When caught in 2006 he, fortunately, avoided serious punishment as some of his customers were important officials, however, was banished from Pyongyang and forced to live in the less privileged South Hamgyeong province. Finally, in 2010, Seong-Guk defected to South Korea via China. His story reveals the value of not settling, for identifying what his talent, ability, and character is worth, and pursuing to be correctly compensated for it. While his risk had some negative repercussions, his awareness and pursuit of his worth ultimately led him to the position of freedom and appreciation that he is in now.
The value of persistence
Returning to Young-Li’s story, her life under North Korean rule reveals another indispensable life lesson: the value of persistence. While living in the country, she was a telephone operator for the National Security Department which was North Korea’s equivalent of the MI5 or CIA. Such a position is so high level that members of the public were forbidden from even making eye-contact with people they knew to be agents. At the time, she was very proud of her job with the most powerful organization in the country, however, when news broke that her mother had defected, Young-Li and her family were quickly found guilty of association, she was fired from her job and her privileges were taken away. What more, each member of her family was placed under close observation and was forced to report on the behavior of their friends and neighbors on behalf of the North Korean People’s Army.
When she was able to make contact with her mother, who now resided in South Korea, Young-Li struggled to comprehend what she revealed to her. Having been manipulated into believing that South Korea was an incredibly poor country and a colony of the U.S. she could not believe that its residents were so financially comfortable that they could absent-mindedly dispose of left-over food such as beef – something that is an absolute luxury n North Korea.
The conflict of facts, the thought of leaving her friends and family behind, and the certain punishment that would occur if caught made the concept of attempting to escape her life in North Korea incredibly difficult to bring to fruition, however, because of her determination, Young-Li tried not once, not twice, but three times before finally defecting to South Korea.
On her second failed attempt to flee the country, she was caught and imprisoned for 3 days in a cage so small she could not stand up and was deprived of food and water. Despite knowing the consequence of being caught again would likely lead to a much more dire punishment, Young-Li was not deterred from achieving her goal of freedom. On her third and final attempt of escape, she hid for 22 days by the Han River for the coast to be clear enough for her to make her break and swam for her life to cross the border into South Korea.
Being persistent in endeavors that just don’t seem to want to go your way may at sometimes seem a waste of time, effort, and emotional energy, however, this story is an extreme example of what can be achieved through sheer perseverance. Had Young-Li not been so determined, the state of her welfare would be entirely unknown and she would never have been able to share her unbelievable story. While you and I are not likely to need to persevere through such a mission, the fact that someone else was able to, displays the importance and value of not giving up.
Storytelling is a powerful tool
Had Young-Li and Seong-Guk not shared their stories, I would have a very limited understanding of what it was like to be a North Korean, despite having traveled in the country myself. Now living in South Korea, Seong-Guk continues to create animations, however now focuses on making ‘webtoons‘ that reveal the true experiences of North Koreans for a curious international audience, unlike the propaganda he created before.
Be it through social media, a late night conversation with a local or a handwritten diary entry for your eyes only, telling your own story can help others reflect on their own lives, and for you to reflect on yours. Further, taking the chance to ask for and listen to other people’s stories provides the same opportunity reversed.
What do you think of Young-Li and Seong-Guk’s stories? Have you gained any valuable life lessons while traveling?