North Korean family settles in ‘heaven on earth’: Salt Lake City, Utah
She spends six days per week juggling three separate jobs and only has time to return home to see her children once a week, but Kang Mi Young says her life in Salt Lake City, Utah, is “heaven” compared to the “hell” in North Korea she escaped from in 2019.
Kang, a pseudonym, and her two children, and one other unrelated North Korean refugee arrived in Utah in November 2021. The four were the first North Korean refugees to settle in a foreign country other than South Korea since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the U.S. State Department.
In an interview with RFA’s Korean Service, Kang recounted her family’s harrowing escape from North Korea, which included two unsuccessful attempts, a stint in a labor camp, and confrontations with brokers who sought to take advantage of her family’s vulnerability.
Kang Mi Young says her work schedule in Salt Lake City is rough. Her primary job is at a Korean-owned dental laboratory. After that she works an overnight shift helping disabled people, where she can get a few hours of sleep when her duties are complete. She also works at a Korean grocery store on weekends.
“I really don’t have time to go home. My daytime and nighttime workplaces and my house are triangularly located. I commute back and forth between two workplaces, and I go home once a week.”
Even so, Kang said her life in the United States, where she can depend on getting paid for the work she does, is much more comfortable than the one she and her family left behind in North Korea.
“Even with a little effort, there is no worry about eating and living, and there is no hindrance to the lives of children,” she said. “In North Korea, you still have no food to eat even though you work all day long. No matter how much I pay in taxes, the income here is high. Should I call it heaven on earth? I feel like I went to heaven after living in the hell that is North Korea.”
Most North Koreans who escape the hardships of their authoritarian and isolated country want to settle in the South, where they face no language barrier and are already considered citizens. According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, more than 33,000 North Koreans have settled in the South over the years. Kang’s case, making a home somewhere other than South Korea, is far more rare.
Only 220 North Koreans have settled in the U.S. since Washington started accepting North Korean refugees in 2006, according to a 2021 report by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a non-governmental organization.
Kang’s journey may have an atypical ending, but much of her story mirrors that of other escapees. Prior to their successful escape, Kang’s family made two previous attempts, only to be caught by Chinese police and sent to a detention facility before being forcibly repatriated.
The second time they were repatriated, Kang was sent to a prison camp where she was starved and tortured. She was freed after relatives sold the family home and used the money to bribe camp officials, she said.
Despite the two unsuccessful attempts, the family remained determined to escape. The third time they set out, they were able to make their way to a safehouse in the Chinese city of Shenyang. The safehouse owner introduced them to a broker, who promised to help them get to South Korea via Southeast Asia.
Helping runaway North Koreans is big business in China, but many brokers take advantage of escapees, who are reluctant to report abuse to the authorities because it could mean that they get sent back to North Korea.
The broker Kang dealt with was a South Korean man, who earned a living collecting refugees from Shenyang and sending them to another broker who would help them get to Thailand.
According to Kang, she and other female refugees were forced to have sex with the broker while they were staying at the safehouse.
The broker delivered her to another safehouse in Qingdao, where she was ordered to write out a contract that would bind her to another broker, and told she would be killed if she refused.
Fearing for her life and the lives of her children, she finally signed the contract, which stated that after her arrival in South Korea that she would have one year to pay off her 7 million won (U.S. $5,200) debt.
The broker promised her that he would assign her to a job that would pay 5 million won ($3,725) per month, which is considerably higher than the average South Korean salary, and much higher than what typical entry-level employees receive.
Kang was skeptical and escaped with her family to Thailand with the help of an organization that requested not to be identified, for security reasons and because it continues to operate in the region. Once in Thailand, Kang and her daughters were placed in a refugee center.
While Kang initially planned to resettle in South Korea, she feared that she could be subject to the terms of the contract she had signed under duress. Another North Korean refugee told her that he was applying for asylum in the U.S., so she decided that she would too.
After two years in a Thai refugee center, her application was accepted and her family boarded a plane to Utah, with a stopover in South Korea.
When the plane landed at Incheon International Airport, Kang said she cried with joy.
Toiling in “Heaven”
Now in Salt Lake City, Kang said she hopes to start her own business. When she was in North Korea, she supported her family by selling Chinese goods in the marketplace.
“I graduated college in North Korea, but I don’t have a college diploma here, and I’m past the age to go to college. I dream of doing business in the future,” she said.
“Right now is the period where I will work hard for several years to establish a foothold. Compared to my career in North Korea, I’m going to go into the field where I can do my best. I studied well. I was interested in beauty and massage. I can also branch out into things like vegetable farming, where I can do well without making mistakes.”
The time away from her children is difficult, but Kang believes the sacrifices have been worth it.
“I feel sorry. But right now, my tasks and my children’s tasks are different. My children have to concentrate on learning and studying, even when I don’t come home,” she said.
“I need to lay a foundation for them to study. Now, my children are aware of the situation and they study when I’m not home. I believe they will study well so that they can go to college here.”
Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.