“I am a tiger.”

Today I asked Kyung-ok how she’d describe herself. She said “I am a tiger. I can adapt to any situation. And I can show the world that I’m a little bit scary, too. I won’t ever give up.” She’s awesome.

She has had a rough few weeks. Her and her boyfriend have separated, money is short, school is draining and she’s helping a friend/fellow refugee through a low point in mental illness. Despite that, she keeps her positive attitude and determination. We’re becoming close, and while I miss my people in the States I’m really sorry that I have to leave in just two weeks. 

Young Defectors: Friendship

I have a lot of eating and transportation and interacting with technology photos. While I think a lot of that is just that it took a while to build trust, I think they’re also important motifs of refugees rebuilding a life in Seoul.

The fact that Kyung-Ok can go to school now and doesn’t have to play hooky to guard her family’s food is a huge deal. So is her food security, access to high speed, convenient transportation and mobile internet. She told me that in her village in the DPRK, her family was the only one around that had a television. It was black and white and the whole block came by every night to watch old Russian or Chinese movies. Now, Kyung-Ok torrents a lot of American teen flicks, action adventures from Vietnam, and comedies among whatever else she pleases. Among some of the titles we’ve watched together are Mean Girls, The Hannah Montana Movie and Wild Child.

While Kyung-Ok is my main source and she gives me great access, I’m also focusing a lot on her and Oh-Kyong’s friendship. They met at a resettlement camp. I hear a lot that it’s much harder to make friends with South Koreans, and their bond is really special. Oh-Kyong is a little more hesitant to let me into her daily life, but when she’s with Kyung-Ok she opens up a bit. Here are some photos of them.

Young defectors: Lunar New Year

I apologize for getting so behind in blogging! I’ll do a few posts to catch you all up.

I went to Changwon with Kyung-Ok (five hours by car, three by high-speed train) over the Lunar New Year holiday weekend to visit her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, a South Korean man. They welcomed me to eat with them and stay at their home, which was so kind. I brought them some fruit, as gift-giving is customary not only around holidays but whenever you go to someone’s home. Ultimately, my small token paled in comparison to her mother’s generosity, and so I’ve been getting Kyung-Ok and Oh-Kyong meals as my way of returning the favor.

Here are some of my favorite images of Kyung-Ok and her mother’s relationship and of the holiday weekend.

Seoul: Yeongdungpo Market

Today I didn’t have a shoot, so I went feature hunting at the traditional market in my neighborhood. The many vendors who make their living at these all-weather markets serve as a staple in cities across the country. In massive Seoul there is a market in most neighborhoods.

Surrounded by mostly older folks, I couldn’t help but feel like I had traveled back in time. Sometimes the traditional parts of Seoul seem so drastically different from the modern striking skyscrapers. But while many people head to multi-floor grocery stores or department stores these days, the traditional market culture is very much alive. It’s a place to get homemade traditional food, traditional clothing and wholesale ingredients. Not to mention that you can bargain for a lower cost, and sometimes vendors throw in something extra for free, a tradition called “deom”.

Koreans are fiercely proud of their heritage. Markets like this are still a vital part of life because people want to support them and keep their traditions living even in the age of motorcycle take-out delivery and online shopping. Plus, there is seriously delicious food and laughs to be enjoyed together.

Young Defectors: II

경옥, my main source in this project about young defectors, has given me great access into her life. But there are some things that she hasn’t allowed me to be there for yet. That’s okay, and I respect her need to protect her friends and family who cannot have their pictures taken and posted. For this reason, I’ve asked her to collaborate with me on her story. It’s hers after all. So she’s taking my ‪‎Lomography‬ ‪instant‬ camera with her this week for family visits, dates and other things that she doesn’t feel comfortable letting me join on. I’m going to include her pictures when I share the edit with you all later. I’m really excited about this. She loves making pictures, and I think this is appropriate way to tell her story. Plus its a lot of fun for both of us. Here’s a‪ snapshot‬ she took of us from the subway today. We probably shouldn’t have used flash, but all is a learning experience. :)

Here are a few pictures that I’ve made of their community these first few weeks. What I wanted to capture was their independence, strength and optimism. These kids have had to work hard to catch up in school, make money with their family and adapt to a new culture. But here in South Korea, they have dreams, and they get to be young kids. They play and study and look toward the future while remembering their past and helping each other.

I went to a billiards hall with 일룡 and his South Korean friend who gave me the English name John. And I went with 경옥 and Grace, (who is 일룡’s sister, but doesn’t want to give her Korean name) to a norebang and to eat. I joined the three of them at the global Christian church they go to, which has a mission to rescue defectors from China and help them adapt in the South. I also went with 경옥 to decorate a cake for her boyfriend’s birthday and accompanied her babysitting her cousin (who was born in Seoul to a North Korean mother and South Korean father). I hope you enjoy these, and I hope to have more to show you soon!

Seoul: Week One

This has been one stressful week.

Thanks for reading. I think blogging might help to feel connected to home, remember my experience, stay organized/proactive and keep me reliable and honest about how my experiences shape my project. Reflection is usually a good thing for me, and if I keep it public, hopefully I will do it with some frequency.

This is going to be a long post. So, TL;DR: I lost access to my original source, I can’t afford Korean peanut butter, I suck at speaking Korean, I have some great friends, I met my awesome translator, reporting struggles, delicious Korean food and I found a new source.

I arrived in Seoul on Jan. 26 after nearly twenty-four hours of traveling. The flight from Chicago to Japan was particularly brutal. I don’t do well with sitting still, but I got a lot of reading done. (Thanks, E, for your Kindle. And thank you, Andrew for the book recommendation.)

Eager to begin my reporting about the North Koreans who I met in Seoul in 2013 through an NGO called NAUH (Now Action Unity for North Korean Human Rights), I contacted my main source on Tuesday. And while we previously spoke for nearly a year, unfortunately, he and his family have decided that he cannot be photographed anymore. I did not push farther, I respect him and his family and the decision for defectors to go public puts them in very real danger from North Korean authorities who contact known defectors in Seoul to try to convince them to return.

Recently, Kim Jong-Un has been circulating propaganda that defectors who return home are happier and will not be harmed. But in the past, repatriation has been cause to send the perpetrators and three generations of their family to prison work camps. According to the above linked report from Reuters, “During the first quarter of 2013, the monthly average of new defectors was down 15 percent from the previous year.” and “[In 2012] the number of defectors entering South Korea fell 44 percent to 1,509 from 2,706 in 2011, South Korean government data shows. In 2010, 2,402 defectors arrived and 2,900 in 2009.”

Life in Seoul is difficult for defectors, and some do return or dream of returning. I have been told that while most South Koreans hope for a better future for their common ancestors, they immediately recognize a North Korean accent, and are understandably curious, wary and even suspicious of defectors. From early in their education, South Koreans learn about the North Korean state and the civil war and threats of nuclear attack. Additionally, sometimes North Korean government agents pose as defectors. Due to all of this and other cultural differences, North Koreans often feel isolated. They sometimes find the capitalist country too individualistic and narcissistic and the freedom daunting.

Nevertheless, many are speaking out against the regime and are working toward a life they are choosing for themselves. My goal is to share a few of these stories. With any big project, I am re-planning and re-organizing. After my original plans fell through, I began contacting all my sources here and using every avenue I could imagine to find defectors whom I could photograph safely and who were willing. I knew I would have to be malleable during this reporting trip. And it turns out that another one of my sources is currently studying abroad. I began to think that my pre-reporting/pre-interviewing which I tried to do in Korean was sloppy and unorganized. I wanted to be challenged, and I got my wish.

It was a long, anxious few days of hearing nothing. I felt so in over my head.

I met with a few friends and had meals and drinks in which I mostly blabbed about my backup plans B, C and D.

But it did feel great to be back in this city. As I warmed up and unclenched my knuckles, I enjoyed acclimating. My friend Patrick (who I did a story on in 2013) and I met up and went to our favorite ramen shop. The owner had given us a coupon for a free meal should we ever return to Korea (I don’t think he thought we actually would.) It was an amazing experience to surprise the shop owner and to enjoy that meal.

And then I was able to meet my translator, Jun Michael Park. He is a Seoul-based photojournalist who has been following the Sewol ferry sinking disaster and the bereaved families’ protests. He has a great project ongoing about one father in particular Kim Young-Oh, who has been on hunger strike. The fact that he’s a photojournalist and a translator (he worked with NPR during their reporting of the ferry tragedy) puts so much of my mind at ease. He understands American photojournalism and the kind of access I need, but he also has the cultural, political and social knowledge that I lack. He will be vital to this project, and I’m so grateful to him for agreeing.

He and I had a good discussion about another cultural and political issue I will be traversing: the nature of celebrity among defectors. South Koreans are suspicious that North Koreans sometimes exaggerate their story in order to gain status as a public figure. This provides them access to resources, speaking engagements that pay and a lot of other opportunities. This is difficult to write about, but there has recently been some backlash about defector activists, most famously Shin Dong-Hyuk, whose testimony is the basis for Escape from Camp 14, (also including Park Yeon-Mi, who, full disclosure, I photographed in 2013 and we have remained in some contact since) for possibly exaggerating their language and stories. Personally, I have not made up my mind about how I feel about this. I think that Mr. Apt (quoted in the article linked) might be an unreliable source. Additionally, these stories questioning defectors’ testimony derail the real conversation—there is a huge human rights crisis in the DPRK and we need to do more to help the people. But I need to keep a healthy dose of journalistic skepticism in the forefront of my mind for this project. There is no sure way to verify the testimonies of those who I interview.

Defectors who return to the North also receive status as a celebrity returnee, often bribed with money and told that they will be featured on Pyeongyang television (to talk about how much they hate the South).

And now for some good news! Today I believe I have found a source. She is a young defector who came to South Korea via China in 2008. She is still in high school in Seoul, but she is outspoken and involved with activism. She wants to be heard, and I want to share her story. How incredible is that? I’m meeting her for coffee tomorrow to conduct an initial interview!

For the sake of brevity (or, well, wrapping this long post up) and to avoid rambling, I’m going to use lists for the more personal parts post.

Things that are difficult:
- I miss my loved ones.
- My Korean is very limited.
- Moving to Seoul from Jasper, Indiana was gigantic shock to my system.
- I am afraid of this project. (But I also know that that’s an indication that it’s important).
- Koreans are camera shy (unless they have control of the camera and how they are portrayed. For example, sel-cas (self-camera / selfies) are ubiquitous, but local media blurs out faces on television news.
- I stand out a lot as a 5’10” white woman with blue eyes.
- It’s pretty awkward to eat alone in Korea. But, really, I don’t mind. After all, Seoulites expect foreigners to do weird things.
- I can’t find oatmeal in Korea and peanut butter is outrageously expensive. So is fruit. I also don’t have a refrigerator or microwave in my room. I do, however have a burner, so I will take advantage of that and of the (probably more cost-effective) option of many local restaurants.

Things I’m grateful for (Let’s finish on a positive note!) :
- I believe I’ve found another source who is willing to be photographed!
- The support of IU for making this project possible.
- My mentors, and the photojournalism community, for everyone’s help and support.
- The kindness of the Korean woman who helped me with my baggage when there wasn’t an escalator at my subway stop in Singil.
- Patrick being in Seoul and being a fantastic friend.
- My host family’s kindness and patience with my awful Korean. (And for a delicious breakfast on my first morning.)
- My familiarity with the Seoul metro and my (minimal but survival) Korean language skills.
- Jun Park agreeing to be my translator and resource for my project.
- A small but caring network of friends in Seoul.
- Korean street food: A stand in my neighborhood sells delicious and cheap dumplings (만두).
- My ability to run and do yoga (poorly).
- Wide availability of free WiFi (raises hands in praise emoji) and coffee shops to work in and meet at.
- Eric, for his constant love and friendship and support. And for letting me borrow his Kindle, which I’ve been reading constantly on public transportation and in free time.
- The comfort of escaping into story. I’ve just finished “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline and highly recommend it. I’m now reading “The Sirens of Titan” by Kurt Vonnegut and “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman.

If you got down this far, thank you. You’re rad.

All imagery © 2018 Caitlin O'Hara. All rights reserved. Not for use or publication without permission.
Using Format