North Korean defector describes life at home through cartoons

In part three of the series on North Korean defectors, Al Jazeera speaks to cartoonist Sung-guk who fled in 2010.

korean defectors cartoonist choi sung guk [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
It took Choi Sung-guk just 15 days to reach South Korea from the North [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

Seoul, South Korea – Around 31,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Almost 71 percent of those defectors are female, most in their 20s and 30s.

Only a few take the most dangerous route through the Korean Demilitarized Zone that a North Korean soldier took late last year.

Most of the North Koreans defect via the long and expensive journey that takes them into China after crossing the Yalu River.

This journey takes the individuals to China’s southern border into Vietnam and Laos before they arrive in Thailand.

They are often flown into South Korea from Thailand. Some even opt to go to the US, according to Liberty in North Korea, an NGO based in the US and South Korea.

But their arrival into South Korea does not signal an end to their worries and problems.

Part 1 -“Korean government doesn’t treat defectors as people

Part 2 – “As a refugee, South Korea has given me everything” 

In part three of the series, Al Jazeera speaks to 37-year-old cartoonist Choi Sung-guk who also works as a lecturer and broker, helping more North Koreans escape the country and arrive in South Korea.

“I was under surveillance for copying and distributing South Korean movies in the North when I decided to flee in 2010.

“I actually sent out my family first – my mother, sister and my nephew – to China because I was worried. However, after they left, I was arrested and sent to a detention centre for six months. I manage to flee the country myself after that detention period was over.

“Things didn’t work out well for my family in China though. They were arrested and the government tricked my sister. They sent her to North Korea as a spy to complete a mission. But she was caught and killed. I found out when I was in the detention centre.

“In North Korea, I worked at an animation company, making local versions of The Lion King, Titanic, etc. I worked as a wedding and birthday photographer and since hairstyles were tightly controlled in the country, I took photos of people and photoshopped different hairstyles on those.

“My trip to South Korea was short and easy. I fled to China, then Laos and then to Thailand before arriving in South Korea. All in 15 days. 

Choi Sung-guk is glad the world can see how stubborn Kim is [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
Choi Sung-guk is glad the world can see how stubborn Kim is [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

“I started working as a program developer and web designers after arriving here. But I was always interested in comics and cartoons. What I saw here was really boring so I took up working at a broadcasting network, as a radio jockey and also a journalist and that’s when I started to understand the South Korean society.

“I also realised the cultural differences between the two Koreas and how people had different attitudes towards unification. And that’s why I started my webtoon three years ago and help towards reducing the cultural gap.

“Through my art work, I want to teach people the differences and the similarities we have. I also want to dispel the prejudice the youth has about unification.

“Out of the 32,000 defectors in South Korea, the most visible are the 100-odd that are not living well. Rest of them are not visible because they are well integrated and are able to make the money they need to survive.

“In North Korea, people have to report on each other. Whenever someone is eating meat, a neighbour, who can’t have meat, will report him. I try and show stuff through my art, through scenarios that are more ordinary.

“Sometimes, I will include historical stuff or academic information in order to get people to understand why it is that North and South Koreans are different. All my work is through collected via people around me and from my work as a broker.

“There has never been anyone who has asked me to send them back permanently. I have had requests for people to go back for a few days to see their family and I have managed to get that done. But nobody wants to go there forever.”

As told to Faras Ghani and Hae Ju Kang 

Source: Al Jazeera