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Meet The North Korean Defector Who Went From Farming To An Elite South Korean University

Ill Yong is not your typical South Korean college student He was born in North Korea and came here as a refugee with his family nearly 10 years ago We’re gonna meet up with him and hear more about his journey from a small mountain village in North Korea to studying at one of South Korea’s elite universities This is like the biggest subway station Oh, oh! He said, “I’m at the platform” Is he on Line 3, then? Line 3, ok We’re coming to you, then Ok… … still walking I think I can get to North Korea faster than to get down to this platform Oh my goodness Long time no see How are you doing? Good – Good There’s too many people, huh? So many people Was that surprising when you got here from North Korea how many people there were? Yeah, it was What was your feeling? Did you miss your hometown? Were you excited to be here? Yeah, I was excited to be here because all my family members are here and there’s a lot of food here But one thing I missed in my hometown is just, friends and the memories of that So where are we going right now? Now we are going to Korea University which is my school Ok In North Korea, how long did it take to get to school? Ha, similar An hour Really? An hour and fifteen minutes By bus? By walking What’s a better commute? the one in Seoul or the one in North Korea? I mean, this is more comfortable but that one in North Korea that was more healthier You know? What river is this? It’s the Hangang the Han River It’s the biggest river in Seoul Ok, so you go to elementary school… On the first day at that school I was kind of bald Bald? Yeah, I was bald I wanted to look, like, stronger and sharp So I cut away my hair Is that normal in North Korea? To cut your hair like that? Yeah That was actually my real hairstyle in North Korea And I just opened the door, and said, “Hello, this is Ill Yong from North Korea, Chongjin, Hamgyung province.” And they were surprised like, “Who the hell is that guy?” The other students? Yeah So you opened the classroom door… Yeah, and just, “Hello, this is Ill Yong from North Korea, Hamgyung province” and “What?” “North Korea?” “Really?” Why did you do that? I mean, I just being myself I just wanted to be myself, right I’m actually from North Korea, right? How did the students treat you after that? Yeah, I was kind of nervous cause I didn’t know how they’re gonna treat me But they were really cute They asked me, “have you tried chicken in North Korea?” or, “do North Koreans have hamburgers there?” and I was really, really excited to answer that question And after that, we became really good friends Let’s take this one I didn’t go to school usually in North Korea I go to maybe one or two or three days in a month What? That’s it? Yeah I had to help out with our farming Really? Yeah So you would only – it’s not like every day in North Korea you were going to elementary school You weren’t making that walk every day Yeah It’s gonna be cold Do you have time to take a coffee? Yeah, of course Ok, then I can take you to a calm coffee shop A calm coffee shop? Yeah, but the taste is terrible but the… Well you’re really selling this to me When I was in middle school third grade I decided that I do have to study Oh you decided ‘it’s time’? Yeah, this is the time to study and I wanted to be a human rights lawyer In middle school you even knew you wanted to be a human rights lawyer? Yeah, yeah Cause until second grade I was kind of a bad student but at the third grade I realized that this is not a good life and my friends are still starving and they are dying in North Korea still, now So I decided that I do have to do something for them So, “Ok, then I’m gonna study from today” This is the building I study at So this is Korea University? Yeah, this is my building Jeongyung Political Science and Economics building So you study political science? Yeah, I’m studying political science Now this is like, an elite university This is an elite university Right, this is top three This is top two Top two, yeah Did you find that when you came to Korea University How did students treat you when they found out you were from North Korea? I mean, they were really careful I mean, they were really considerate Do you think it made it harder to make friends because you are North Korean? No Cause, yeah, I think there’s a lot of other foreigners and other different cultures here You’re very smart but you’re also studying with some of the smartest students in South Korea which is already one of the smartest countries in the world Yeah, it’s really hard Do you feel confident in class? Nope No? I mean, I’m really a confident kind of person But when I got here I’m not confident anymore Really? Yeah Why? They’re really smart So why did you decide to study political science and international relations? Because I experienced that politics can change people’s life, how politics change the people’s life because in North Korea and South Korea there are different political systems and different life quality Yeah So, I’m interested in those kinds of differences As a kid in North Korea, did you ever think that one day you would be going to a university like this? No, never! Never! Did you have dreams of going to university when you were in North Korea? No Was that even possible? I mean, it is possible but for me it was impossible because my grandfather has a really bad background, and economic bad background too What do you mean, bad background? Cause my grandfather he went to political prison camps Oh really? Yeah In North Korea? Yeah, in North Korea So we cannot go to university in North Korea So you mean your Songbun status Yeah Songbun or like your social political status was bad so you would not have been allowed? Yeah If I was still in North Korea maybe I’m gonna be a farmer cause my father is a farmer Yeah Like, how does that affect you now when you think about that? How different life is because you came to South Korea? It makes me more humble and it pushes me to go forward The first, primary goal is to graduate law school here This building This building right here? Yeah As you think back through everything that you’ve been through, right? Leaving North Korea when you were 12, going to elementary school, middle school, high school, and now studying at Korea University, what advice would you give to a North Korean defector who finds him or herself in the same place you were? You can do it too As I did Cool Let’s get a quick picture just like halfway up the hill


  1. Joe Canis Author

    I love this sort of story. And, yes, North Koreans have so much to give to the betterment of society if only given the opportunity. The two Koreas, united under free enterprise, civil rights, and the rule of law, would be a very impressive powerhouse of achievement. Let's all hope it occurs ASAP.


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