THE BLOG
12/15/2015 10:10 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2016

The Stereotype of the Damaged North Korean Is Demeaning

Goddard_Photography via Getty Images

While attending university in downtown Manhattan, I spent many nights at a kitchen table, hunched over the glow of a laptop screen. I was raising funds for the North Korean underground railroad. I volunteered as an NGO fundraiser, wrote research papers, and solicited donations from every high-powered businessperson I managed to contact.

Like most starry-eyed undergrads, I navigated the turbulent waters of college life with a set of close friends. Some were Americans who had grown up in homes not so different than mine. Others were bold students who had escaped North Korea. But we were all geeky Millennials tied together by big city dreams; there were virtually no differences between us.

The only exception, perhaps, was the difference in how I introduced these two groups. When bringing a friend from North Korea to a social gathering, it was critical to be vague about their origins. "She's an exchange student from Korea," I would say. It was technically true, but with a slight cloaking of reality. If I didn't do this, that person would be bombarded with questions, and, ultimately, treated as an other. She became a zoological oddity rather than an individual.

When asked about their childhood experiences, the North Koreans I know answer politely, and always with a smile. But privately, many have expressed exasperation over constantly being interrogated about their pasts. Often, they were grateful that I hid their identity. They wanted more than anything to be treated like regular students.

The problem is more profound, however, than a few undergraduates at a party. This compulsion to treat North Koreans as victims, essentially the same in their experiences, who should be showcased as examples of injustice can be found throughout the global human rights community. It is hard for activists, no matter how sincere they may be, to see North Koreans as ordinary folk, with their own interior lives independent of politics. This penchant to see North Koreans as two-dimensional symbols of oppression is the unspoken weight that so alienates many defectors.

In actuality, refugees are simply regular people -- they can be funny, affectionate, abrasive, and even boring. They talk about superhero movies. They like rap music and travel. Some spend their days working out at the gym. Others sit at home watching Game of Thrones and eating cookies. They want to be liked. They talk about clubbing, sports, and K-pop idols. Yet too often, well-meaning activists cannot conceive of people from North Korea as anything other than shivering victims. This is not an empowering narrative, and the psychological damage I have seen it cause far outweighs the benefits it might have, such as generating donations for NGOs.

Seeing North Koreans as the perpetual product of a tragic past cuts them off from the rest of the world. We need to retire stereotype of the eternally damaged defector, somehow under a constant cloud of a repressive regime no matter where she goes.

Of course, it is true that refugees overcome extraordinary hardships. Such experiences do impact their identity, but they are not an identity entire. These are people who have survived one of the most brutal regimes in the world. They may have escaped gulags or sexual slavery. Many in this population, like Joseph Kim, co-author of Under the Same Sky, have presented vivid testimony about their tribulations. Clearly, these accounts have a critical place in the modern discourse on human rights. But we do refugees like Joe a disservice when we reduce them to poster boys or poster girls.

Whatever their past may have been, today, that North Korean person is a journalist or a translator. They're a mom or somebody's boyfriend. They're professors, gay rights activists, dads, cashiers, construction workers, and college students. Just like any population, North Koreans run the gambit from model citizen citizens to sleazy opportunists. But the image of the refugee, often informed by U.N. fundraising ads, doesn't allow us to see this diversity. The North Korean is first and foremost an eternal victim, appearing before us wide-eyed and starving.

In my experience, North Koreans are frequently frustrated by the manner in which the media demands that they give testimony. Yet they are hesitant to speak about this frustration. Of course they are grateful for the opportunity to shine light on the sufferings of their people, and they don't want friends, lovers, neighbors, or family members to be forgotten. But at the same time, they don't want to be forever introduced as "so-and-so, who escaped North Korea." They want to be themselves, fully present in the here and now. There is so much that North Koreans can offer their communities besides telling sad stories.

I've never seen the vision of the "damaged defector" collide with reality more than at Mulmangcho School, where I led a volunteer program for one year. Mulmangcho is an alternative academy for North Korean children, where students focus on adjusting to South Korean life and preparing to enter mainstream schools. We had a team of English teachers -- overwhelmingly E-2 visa holders -- who held free language classes each Sunday. Often, new volunteers expected quiet, shell-shocked children. If it was their first time doing refugee work, their conception of the defector came from documentaries they had seen on YouTube.

When they actually got to campus, however, they met a pack of hyperactive, boisterous elementary schoolers who would yank on their arm viciously until they agreed to play Connect Four. The Mulmangcho kids are obsessed with Pokémon, and (being a 90's child myself) I would try to incorporate the cartoon series into my lessons. When I brought my Nintendo 3DS, they argued over who got to see it first. These were regular kids. They jumped, ran around, and plastered Frozen stickers on every flat surface they could find.

But the media often refuses to recognize this normality. Refugee children are too often portrayed as caricatures of helplessness and want, rather than the dream-filled individuals they are. One of my Mulmangcho students was a gifted horseback rider, and had mentioned competing professionally, perhaps even in the Olympics. I'm just worried that adults don't take his big plans for the future seriously. Instead, they'll want to focus on the abuses he faced in North Korea as a child, dragging up the past even as he tries to move forward.

This is why I avoided kotjebbi (roughly translated as "street orphan") imagery in all of my fundraising campaigns for Mulmangcho School. Back when I curated our Facebook fan page, I filled it with images of our refugee scholars going on field trips, studying, and playing. This was important, because it set a tone of empowerment. Mulmangcho is not hiding the reality these kids come from, but it wants to emphasize where they're going, rather than where they've been.

I wanted to showcase how this NGO creates academic programs that will help students create a better world. As adults, they'll lay the groundwork for a strong North Korean diaspora and will help other escapees settle into capitalist society. This empowerment-focused approach has earned more fundraising dollars than sad photos of street kids ever could have.

Another NGO that has broken ground in the positive portrayals of refugees is LiNK, or Liberty in North Korea. When I lived in Manhattan, I organized for them extensively, and was hugely influenced by their vision. Their social media-savvy website is full of post-resettlement success stories. Defectors are never portrayed as PTSD-addled welfare addicts -- instead, they're shown as survivors, each with a unique personality and distinct career path. Donors are encouraged to give money not out of pity, but with the knowledge that North Koreans can successfully integrate into the modern economy and contribute positively to their neighborhoods. Today, LiNK's youthful brand dominates donor markets and boasts an income of nearly 1.5 million USD.

In this regard, the market has spoken. A positive, individualistic portrayal of North Korean defectors has proven not only to be more profitable, but also better for refugees. Activists and those working in media should make a conscious effort to see North Koreans as individuals, rather than symbols of a dark and frightening place. North Korea will always be an important part of their personal experiences, but we must also free refugees from stereotypes so they can fulfill the promise of their own, singular lives.