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Isolationism, Human Rights
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Asia
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North Korea, South Korea, Assimilation, Migration, Refugees
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The past five years has seen a steady increase in the number of North Korean defectors living in South Korea. With a population of over 8,000, this growing minority group faces numerous challenges on a daily basis, from difficulty finding employment and discrimination in the workplace, to cultural tensions inherent in adjusting to a new society.
Laura Elizabeth Pohl

2005 — student award of excellence

According to an agreement with the subjects, the images from this project cannot be published. The images have been displayed during a number of lectures given by the photographer.

The past five years has seen a steady increase in the number of North Korean defectors living in South Korea. With a population of over 8,000, this growing minority group faces numerous challenges on a daily basis, from difficulty finding employment and discrimination in the workplace, to cultural tensions inherent in adjusting to a new society. Upon arrival in their new country, North Koreans often expect to assimilate with little difficulty, speaking the same language and sharing cultural and historical ties with their new countrymen. But the reality of living in a modern, capitalist society far different from the one they left is often difficult to face, let alone adjust to.

By shadowing two North Korean refugees for a year, Laura Pohl was given a candid look into their daily lives, and their struggle as outsiders in a country that is both familiar and strange simultaneously. The photographs she has taken raise important questions regarding the refugees' plight, and bring to fore the sensitive issue of how to socially integrate a large group of North Koreans who have grown apart, culturally and even linguistically, from their South Korean counterparts. Why did they leave North Korea? How did they get to South Korea? And what does the future hold for them?

A description of a presentation of the images given at The Korea Society Oct. 3, 2006:

With crisp, black and white digital photos projected onto a screen behind her, Pohl outlined the swelling refugee flow to the South. From 1959 to 1991, only 600 North Koreans successfully fled to the South. Spurred by worsening economic conditions in the 1990s, over 1800 were arriving each year by 2004. At least 70-percent of the refugees are women.

Pohl, who began her project in a community of North Korean refugees in Seoul in 2005, and continued shooting through 2006, focused on two illustrative subjects. The first was Kyong Hee, a 54-year old woman who fled into China five years ago, and only continued to the South because of pressure from Chinese authorities. Spare images of full rooms that seem somehow empty, and of Kyong Hee poised to perform a traditional Korean dance, an awkward arm's length from her peers, communicated a penetrating feeling of roped-off pain.

Recounting their friendship, Pohl said that Kyong Hee was often lonely and uncommunicative. She spent most of her days sitting around her government-provided apartment. Her daughter, 21-year old Mee Young, was adjusting well to South Korea, working part-time and dating a South Korean. Kyong Hee was not. She did not see the point in working. Like many refugees, she had assumed that the benefits of middle-class South Korean life would come to her automatically, and so disdained menial labor. She did not have any South Korean friends (none of the refugees did, and few South Koreans were interested in reaching out). And she felt her daughter was slipping away into an alien culture.

Continuing to a hopeful counterpoint, Pohl introduced photos of Mee Heh, a 43-year old North Korean woman who arrived in the South in 2002. Pohl said that though the South Korean government encouraged idleness by providing refugees with large cash grants but little in the way of job training, Mee Heh had begun working to provide for her two young children. Appearing buoyant and social even in pensive profiles, Mee Heh joined a church, connected with other refugees, and dedicated herself to raising the money needed to bring the rest of her family from the North.

Though many refugees aren't prepared for the realities of life in South Korea, Pohl ended with an anecdote that illustrated how completely the refugees can change. Pohl remembered noticing a prayer written by Douglas McArthur stuck to Mee Heh's refrigerator. She asked Mee Heh if she knew who McArthur was. She did. "In North Korea, we learned that he was very bad," she said. "But now, I think he was very good."

LInk to The Korea Society announcement - http://www.koreasociety.org/policy/policy/hope_and_struggle_north_korean_defectors_living_in_south_korea.html

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