National Geographic : 2009 Feb
• "Life is tough here, but I m glad I came," she said, before returning to her sanctuary. "I still dream of being a success. I want to make my parents in North Korea proud of me." White was sharing a hospital room with ve other women in the provincial city of Cheonan, near the Hanawon resettlement facility. At Hanawon doctors had diagnosed her with thyroid can- cer, and they immediately operated. If she had remained in North Korea, or even in China, she almost certainly would have died. Now she had a chance of healing. She rose unsteadily from her hospital bed to greet me, a shy smile on her face. A scar from the surgery extended around to the base of her throat. The intense young woman I remem- bered, with the deep laugh and showy clothes, now teetered in baggy pajamas, her voice a hoarse whisper. "I called Pastor Chun to thank him," she said. "Durihana is helping pay for my treatment. Sometimes Pastor Chun comes here, and we pray together." White, Chun had but they crave a sense of belonging. "Most South Koreans are indi erent to their plight," Lankov said. "And to not have your su ering recognized is an almost unbearable form of violence." Red answered at the rst knock, throwing open the door of her 12th- oor apartment in Incheon, near the airport. Eight months had passed since I d seen her hurry from a hotel room in China, a scared, dark-eyed teenager on the run. Her face was rounder now, her arms eshier, thanks to regular meals. She d streaked her hair red and was dressed in black jeans and a T-shirt. Proudly, she showed me her home of seven weeks, a spotless two-room apartment, bare except for a mattress on the bedroom floor and a desk crowned with a personal computer. A sheet of paper taped to a wall showed pink Chinese characters for happiness. "Kimchi!" she squealed, using the Korean equivalent of "Say cheese!" as she shot pictures and video with her new camera. Deft as any South Korean youth, she downloaded the images and zapped them to my wife in the U.S. Red showered bars of chocolate on my lap and ordered me to eat. I suspected that I was a rare guest. "Do you have many friends?" I asked. She shook her head vehemently. "How can I make friends if I can t make sense of the society outside?" She confessed that she rarely left the apartment, self-conscious about her accent and not understanding the language South Koreans use, with its liberal sprinkling of English words. Red also didn t feel con dent about her job prospects. Language courses and classes in hairstyling cost too much for her monthly $400 government check, and with only a high school education, she was probably limited to low-wage jobs. She had already quit a job at a gas station and now was thinking about working in a cafeteria. "At job interviews," she said, "I m afraid to say I m North Korean, because of all the disadvantages that come with it." We a t e sh and rice at a nearby restaurant, where Red snapped more pictures, giggled, sent messages to fellow defectors on her cell phone, and practiced saying "computer" in English. SEOUL I Still fearful of revealing his name or face, a defector takes a break from studying for a medical exam in a home as unsettled as his prospects. A doctor in North Korea, the new South Korean citizen is finding that much of his training doesn't translate. But every day reminds him of why he came so far: "Here I'm free to talk, to look, and to never worry about food again."