Immigrant of the Week: “Elise Park,” Out of North Korea

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Usually, XpatNation picks as its immigrant of the week a person who has flourished since their arrival in the United States. This week, we are redefining the word “flourish” and are selecting “Elise Park” for the honor. And who is she? And why the quotation marks?

Simply put, “Elise Park” is not her real name. She is a defector from North Korea, and to protect any family members and friends she has left back there, she isn’t giving her legal name to the media. When you understand what North Korea is like, you understand her reluctance.

The ‘Big Brother’ State of North Korea

imagesImage Source: TV 2

Officially known as the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” North Korea is a hereditary dictatorship in which democracy and the people don’t enter into things. The communist-derived ideology of the state serves as window dressing to what is really the world’s largest prison.

The average day in the capitol Pyongyang starts a little differently from the way yours probably does. The city “wakes to eery, ear piercing music which is played through speakers in the street at 6am for about 20 minutes. That strange alarm clock is followed by propaganda speeches at 7am and then marching music at 8am as downtrodden citizens make their way to their jobs, which usually involves 12 to 14-hour shifts working for state-run companies. And there’s no rest from Kim Jong Un’s message at work either as propaganda continues to play on more speakers throughout the day.”

Food is scarce thanks to idiotic agricultural policies, money can be declared valueless at the drop of a hat, and you can’t leave your assigned area of residence without a pass. Step out of line, and you go into the prison system of a prison state.

“It is estimated that between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners and family members are detained in these camps, where starvation, forced labor, executions, torture, rape, forced abortion, and infanticide are commonplace.”

The interesting part of that is “and family members.” It is common for one person to be arrested for anti-state activity (which could be anything) and for their spouse, parents, in-laws, siblings and children to be sent to prison as well. For more on this, I recommend “Escape from Camp 14.”

Our Immigrant of the Week: “To Escape North Korea is in Itself a Success”

The_statues_of_Kim_Il_Sung_and_Kim_Jong_Il_on_Mansu_Hill_in_Pyongyang_(april_2012)Image Source: Japan Times

Our heroine “says she left in 2004 because she lost hope for building a life there: Her grandfather had fled to South Korea at the start of the Korean War, and was labeled a traitor. As a result, his family was stigmatized. Park says she was kept from attending good schools or getting a good job. Like many other defectors, she crossed the Tumen River into China, but she doesn’t want to talk about her experiences there.”

In brief, the North Koreans who do make it to China are largely illegal aliens who suffer exploitation and abuse in many forms: financially, sexually and emotionally.

“Park” eventually made it to South Korea, but few North Koreans who get that far are willing to reveal their methods. In South Korea, people from the North often are victims of discrimination. Being a North Korean in America, she’s in a very small minority. There are maybe 200 of them. Most North Koreans who get out resettle in South Korea. They are paid less, they are denied jobs, the usual sort of thing minorities experience around the world.
“While in South Korea, she got interested in real estate and realized she needed to learn English. So she worked three jobs, saved enough money and got help from church pastors to come to the U.S. in 2011. Park now attends a local community college and says she prefers it here.”

“This is a land of immigrants,” she says. “At work, this person is a Mexican immigrant, this person is an Italian immigrant. That’s what’s comfortable for me.”

So, she is now in America. She stays up as late as 3 am to get her homework done. One of her recent courses was in oceanography – I had a look at some of the technical terms in a basic class in the field. I can’t imagine following that in a second language. “Elise Park” does it.

She wants to be an international real estate appraiser. She has a long way to go, yet. By our usual standards, she is a success story yet to be written. But when it comes to North Korea, the usual standards don’t apply.

“Elise Park” and all the other North Koreans who are in the US are already successful. They got out, and they now have an equal share of the American dream.


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XpatNation is a Social News and Lifestyle magazine, focusing on the insights and experiences of expatriates living in The United States.

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