CAITLIN O'HARA

STORIES / I Am A Tiger

When asked to describe herself, Kyoung-ok said, "I am a tiger. I like to think I can adapt to anything, and that maybe I can be a bit scary too." The tiger has been a symbol of power and pride in Korean culture for centuries. In traditional art, and contemporary political imagery, it is portrayed as the entire peninsula—not the DPRK and the ROK as divided by a proxy war by the United States and Russia.

A United Nations Commission of Inquiry investigation in 2013 reported that repatriated refugees were tortured, starved and executed. Kyoung-ok arrived in Seoul, South Korea as a 13 year old in 2008 after escaping her rural village in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. To survive, she and her mother, Tae-hee, hid in a cave in China during the Beijing Olympics when there was a crack down on North Korean refugee repatriation, protected one another from dangerous people, and paid a smuggler to help them cross through Vietnam and Cambodia before making contact with a nonprofit that helped them fly to Seoul.

70 percent of the estimated 30,000 North Korean refugees who have made it to South Korea are women and face unique dangers while migrating and resettling in their new home. Through this project, we hope to keep public awareness on the North Korean people inside the country and the diaspora of people building a new life in their new home. While it is important to report on nuclear disarmament and the ongoing crisis between the ROK and DPRK, I believe the victims of the DPRK’s regime have been overshadowed by bellicose propaganda.

I AM A TIGER is a documentary collaboration with North Korean-born Kim Kyong-ok and her best friend, Sarah, who met each other at a resettlement camp during their first months as refugees in South Korea. Kyong-ok has been sharing her story publicly for over five years, appearing on South Korean television and her own YouTube channel where she dispels myths about North Korean refugees and attitudes of North Koreans still inside the DPRK. She is now taking speech-writing classes and studying English with a private tutor in hopes of sharing her story with a global audience. Part of her motivation for speaking publicly is her hope to find her older sister who disappeared in 2004 during an attempt to enter China with a friend. The friend was confirmed executed, but Kyong-ok holds out hope of finding her sister alive.



Kyong-ok is exhausted as she rides the bus home from school at 7:30p.m. on March 4, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea. Students in South Korea often have late school nights, with many studying for up to 16 hours a day. The competitive college preparation environment is overwhelming for Kyong-ok. Instead of looking forward to applying to a university, she attends extra classes for hair and nail design in hopes of working in the beauty field and earning money immediately.

Donning matching shoes, North Korean refugees Kim Kyong-ok, 19 (Lunar age), and Sarah (English name used in order to protect source), 22, walk arm-in-arm on their way to a Christian church service on Feb. 21, 2015 near Hapjeong, Seoul, South Korea. The women met shortly after they each arrived in South Korea at a resettlement camp for refugees. While adjusting to life after North Korea has been challenging, their friendship is a source of strength and solidarity.

Kyong-ok massages Sarah during a sleepover at Kyong-ok's apartment on Feb. 28, 2015 in Mia, Seoul, South Korea. Sarah has had a harder time adjusting to South Korean life and she often seeks advice and support from Kyong-ok. The bandage on her head is from an accident she had in which she slipped at her part-time job as a barista in a cafe in Seoul.

Kyong-ok studies English before going to sleep at her mother's home on Feb. 17, 2015 in Changwon, South Korea. When Kyong-ok arrived in Seoul, she had to start a year behind other kids her age in school. In South Korea's competitive school climate, she felt unprepared. In North Korea, she often had to skip school to guard her family's home against thieves or work to make some extra money.

Kyong-ok and Sarah leave Kyong-ok's apartment so Kyong-ok can go to high school after the girls slept there on Feb. 28, 2015 in Mia, Seoul, South Korea. Her apartment building looks like the others in the same compound. The South Korean government helped
Kyong-ok and Sarah leave Kyong-ok's apartment so Kyong-ok can go to high school after the girls slept there on Feb. 28, 2015 in Mia, Seoul, South Korea. Her apartment building looks like the others in the same compound. The South Korean government helped

Kyong-ok and Sarah spend time at a norebang (singing room) on Feb. 4, 2015 near Yangjae, Seoul, South Korea. When Kyong-ok first arrived in the South, it was difficult to make friends. Her fifth-grade classmates were suspicious of her, asking her whether she was a communist or a spy. South Koreans believe that North Koreans are confrontational, violent and untrustworthy. In order to make friends, Kyong-ok went to her neighborhood norebang and knocked on the doors of rooms with fellow kids, making friends boldy and quickly. Her mother is a music teacher (and was, too, in North Korea), and she has a confident, strong singing voice.

Kyong-ok plays pool with Christian King of Liberia, left, and Jerry Alexander of Canada, right, at Club Zion on March 19 in Itaewon, Seoul, South Korea. After not meeting many foreigners as a child, Kyong-ok loves to visit Itaewon, which is a foreigner-heavy neighborhood close to the United States Army Garrison, to meet people from different places and try foreign food ("But it's so sweet and salty with no spicy flavor"). She especially loves spaghetti, gyros and American breakfast.

Kyong-ok receives news that a close friend and fellow young North Korean refugee is pregnant on March 10, 2015 in her apartment in Mia, Seoul, South Korea. Single motherhood is highly stigmatized in South Korean culture. It can be a cause to lose a job or support from one's family and support system. The friend, who doesn't wish to be identified for her safety, struggles with mental health and has had a difficult time adjusting to life in South Korea.

Kyong-ok looks at herself after her aunt cuts and styles her hair in her salon in Seoul, South Korea. She is training to be a hair and nail designer and helps her aunt out when she can. In North Korea, there is little room for self-expression in hair styles, but Seoul has quickly become a beauty and style world-capital.

Kyong-ok and Sarah spend time on their phones after sharing takeout for dinner at Kyong-ok's apartment on Feb. 28, 2015 in Mia, Seoul, South Korea.

Kyong-ok smokes in an alley to avoid being seen smoking in her school uniform on March 17, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea.

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