So Hanna Choe, 49, once she set foot on U.S. soil, adopted a new name and seldom talked of her husband and daughter. She came to the U.S. as a refugee in 2007 with the help of a pastor she met in China. After a few months in Seattle, where the language barrier felt insurmountable, she headed for L.A.
Once here, she saw an ad for a seamstress at a Korean-run fashion district business. At the interview, she said little but showed them she could sew — she began sewing as a 19-year-old in North Korea.
They told her to begin work the next day but asked her to fill out a resume. She stared at the blank page at a loss, before going to the employer and telling him that in fact, she was from the North. He was initially skeptical, but decided to give her a chance.
"They later told me, apparently they weren't sure if a North Korean could do the job," Choe said.
The women's fashions she was charged with assembling were a wonder: plunging necklines, shirts with just one sleeve and wedding dresses, which she had never seen before. Even more incredible to her was the electricity available around the clock — a luxury unthinkable back home.
Among the South Koreans at work and at church, she quietly practiced saying things with their intonations and their words.
"I have to adapt to the South Korean community. I have no choice but to live among them," she said.
Most others have a harder time adjusting to the capitalist economy. Unlike in South Korea, there are no subsidies or support services to help them settle.
Myung-nam Park vividly remembers landing at Los Angeles International Airport in 2003 with his wife and young son.
"I felt like I was dropped in the middle of the wilderness, in the middle of a desert, by myself," he said.
He got his start driving an unmarked illegal cab in Koreatown. Even though it had been a decade since he left North Korea, his accent still drew quizzical looks. When his cab was seized a couple years later, he made a pittance here and there making kimchi or dumplings and selling them to acquaintances at church.
About a year ago, he was at a basketball court with his son when a Korean pastor chatted him up. Park was suspicious, and when the pastor invited him to his home a few weeks later, he told the man that he wanted to be left alone and hung up.
Eventually, he felt guilty and called the pastor back and told him about his background — how he was trained as a chef in Pyongyang but ran afoul of the law when he was caught listening to South Korean music. The pastor, moved by his story, introduced him to a businessman who invited Park to open a North Korean restaurant at his strip mall in Cerritos.
Three months ago, Park, now 47, opened up Ok Ryu Gwan, where he serves up buckwheat noodles, mung bean pancakes and dumpling soup in the Northern style with less seasoning and clean flavors.
"I lived in the darkness for a long time, but the pastor drew me out," he said.
Still, Park says, it's with other North Koreans that he feels most at ease. They understand the dialect and laugh at the same jokes. They compare stories of going hungry in North Korea — sneaking a drink of milk from a goat in the field, stealing corn kernels that did little to satiate an empty stomach.
Because of a small plot of land her grandparents secretly cultivated in her hometown, Julie's family never went as hungry as others did during North Korea's harsh famine.
She decided to flee in 2004 after her younger sister left one evening and never returned. In her hometown, sitting on the border, it was understood that those who disappeared had crossed over into China. Her mother cried day and night, worried sick. Julie left to find her sister.
Once across, she fled brokers who sell women off to be married and narrowly dodged Chinese police, making her way to South Korea. In Seoul, she entered university, studying real estate with students a decade her junior.
Nine months ago, she decided to take time off and came to the U.S. on a student visa to take English classes. Her classmates are wealthy South Koreans who live lavishly off the money their parents send. They couldn't possibly relate to her journey here.
She dreams of eventually acting as a liaison between a free North Korea and the rest of the world. When that day comes, perhaps she will introduce herself as North Korean without hesitation.
Until then, she figures, some things are better left unsaid.