Reporting from Seoul — Years after fleeing North Korea, most of the 20,000 defectors living here remain fearful of publicly revealing their identities as they continue their adjustment to a democratic political system.
Choi Hae-yeon, 45, is seeking to change that. Choi, a mother of two who fled in 2004, is one of three North Koreans running for political office in upcoming South Korean elections. They are the first three defectors ever backed by a significant party to run for office here.
As tensions intensify between the two nations after the March sinking of a South Korean navy ship, the candidacies in the June 2 vote are a sign, many here say, that Northern newcomers are attempting to put their troubled pasts behind to better blend into Southern society.
"I am happy that I can get my words out," Choi said. "It is another basic right equivalent to working and studying freely … which we cannot have in North Korea."
Choi, who had lived a life of privilege in North Korea because of her family's involvement in government, left after her brother-in-law was arrested. She eventually settled in Seoul, where she says she now wants to hear her long-muted voice ring out loud and clear.
The Liberty Forward Party recently nominated Choi and another North Korean defector as the top candidates in local district council races in the capital. The ruling Grand National Party is backing a third North Korean defector seeking a district council seat in Incheon.
In their journey from living under the thumb of North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il, the defectors are learning that their vote matters here, analysts say.
"In North Korean elections, it is a 100% turnout rate and a 100% same vote," said Kim Jai-gi, a political science professor at the Chonnam National University. "They can guide other North Koreans when it comes to a democratic united Korea in the future."
Back in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, Choi's parents and husband all worked for the Central Party office, allowing her the opportunity to attend college. But one day, her brother-in-law, another party official, went missing. Choi later found him languishing in a remote prison camp, jailed in what she believed was a setup by political rivals. Hard labor and lack of food had left him emaciated.
"Before that hardship, I did not need to know whether other North Koreans were eating enough food or having a comfortable life," Choi said.
The rude awakening led her to South Korea in 2006 — after she stole across the border into China and received refuge in an unnamed foreign embassy in Beijing.
She soon realized, however, that life in the South was at best bittersweet. She saw many fellow socially awkward North Korean nationals treated like second-class citizens.
Choi began to lecture about the political and economic situation in North Korea. With the money she earned from speaking, she went back to school, receiving a master's degree in management and administration this year.
Still, it wasn't enough. To make more of a difference, she decided to embark on a political career, aimed at urging the South Korean government not to underestimate the importance of North Korean defectors.
"They are a potential asset in pursuing reunification," Choi said. "The taxpayer money ought to be used for North Korean defectors effectively and sufficiently."
She and the other two defector candidates say they had to set aside their fears over going public because to be effective they know they must, even if it means putting relatives at risk back home in North Korea.
Since she departed, she says, her father and sister were followed by North Korean security forces.
Choi, an activist for the Coalition of North Korean Women's Rights, says that as she struggles to survive, she feels guilt over those left behind in the North.
"That pain I had is what other female North Korean defectors are also going through," Choi said. "This is how they are living here."
She one day hopes to become a member of the South Korean parliament — dreaming of influencing the overall political direction of her country that once seemed out of reach in the North.
In North Korea, she said, "to have a goal in life is considered an illegality."
Park is a researcher in The Times' Seoul Bureau.