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Wary of notice and trying to fit in

In the shadows of Koreatown, dozens of North Korean defectors work to blend in with the larger South Korean culture, fearful of what would happen to relatives they left behind if they are discovered.

January 10, 2012|By Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times
  • Myung-nam Park, center, fled North Korea 20 years ago. He now runs a restaurant in Orange County, serving food of his homeland.
Myung-nam Park, center, fled North Korea 20 years ago. He now runs a restaurant… (Barbara Davidson, Los Angeles…)

Once a month, in an office building with a grimy glass facade on the outskirts of Koreatown, about a dozen Koreans gather over takeout dinners to talk about life and a homeland to which they cannot return.

Their skin is a little darker and they are maybe a little shorter than the average Korean, from having known hunger and hardship more intimately than most. They are wary of strangers and sparing with personal details. As they chat, the accent they suppress in daily life comes out little by little — indistinguishable to foreign ears but a dead giveaway to any Korean speaker.

They are North Koreans who have fled one of the world's last communist strongholds. They make up a small but budding community forming in the shadows of L.A.'s vast Koreatown.

Although recent South Korean immigrants to the U.S. are increasingly wealthy well-educated professionals who come in search of economic opportunities, the few North Koreans are mostly refugees who illegally crossed the border into China with little other than the clothes on their backs. And in L.A., where their southern counterparts have marked their territory with garish neon signs, high-rises and billboards, the North Koreans choose to remain inconspicuous and speak little of where they come from, out of concern for the families they've left behind and the discrimination they can face from fellow Koreans.

"The difficulties in settling down, the culture shock all immigrants go through, North Koreans experience about two, three times as much of it," said Dong Jin Kim, a South Korean-born pastor who serves as director of the Assn. of North Koreans in America, the group that organizes the monthly gatherings. "The Korean community here doesn't really understand them."

In this nascent community, news of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il's death resonated far differently than in the rest of Koreatown. Across dinner tables and over bottles of soju, they worried about what was next for loved ones in North Korea; reminisced about the conditions that drove them to flee; and wondered if his passing meant that they may one day be able to return to a free homeland.

North Koreans in the Southland number in the several dozens, according to immigrant rights organizers. About a third, Kim estimates, are refugees admitted under the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004 — a total of 126 have entered the country since its implementation, according to the State Department. Many others come on a variety of visas from South Korea after having had difficulty adjusting to life there.

Although census figures don't specify how many of the estimated 1 million Korean immigrants in the U.S. are from the North, fewer than 1% listed North Korea as their birth place in the 2000 census, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Their ranks are also difficult to determine because many carry South Korean passports after having first settled there.

Many are of uncertain legal status, with pending asylum petitions that take years to resolve. A number of families have packed up and left — back to South Korea, or to Britain, Canada or Germany.

Those who remain make a living however they can, while trying to blend in among the numerous Korean immigrants who have carved out enclaves from Orange County to the San Fernando Valley.

There is the aging security guard with a stiff edge that hints at his years in the North Korean army. The massage therapist who learned the trade in China but says little of her time there. The grocery clerk who grows tearful at the sight of mothers with daughters but doesn't speak of her own.

One 32-year-old, who now calls herself Julie, found that her English class was full of questions she didn't want to answer: Where are you from? What was your childhood like?

She improvised a made-up answer to each, masking the fact that she was from the North Korean border city of Hoeryong, from which she fled by bribing a border guard and scurrying across a frozen river into China in January. To explain her accent to Korean classmates, she said she was from a rural part of South Korea near the border with the North.

"When people ask questions, it reminds me of the past, things that are painful to remember," said Julie, who asked to be identified only by her chosen name out of fear of safety for her brothers back home.

Among other Koreans and even with fellow defectors, most are careful with personal details out of concern for family in North Korea. If it became known to authorities there that they were in the U.S. — a nation they were taught to think of as an imperialist enemy invader — there is no knowing what punishment would be levied against remaining family members.

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