Why I Decline 'North Korean Defector' Interview Requests

Why I Decline 'North Korean Defector' Interview Requests

Gyoon Heo
Gyoon Heo

Over the past few years, journalists from all sorts of global media have contacted me to get my ‘defector point of view’ on all things North Korean. And the current inter-Korean drama has been yet another occasion. A famous European TV station crew, flying to South Korea for the Apr. 27 inter-Korean summit, suddenly wanted a side story to complement their summit coverage, in the form of yet another dramatic defector tale. I was reluctant, and declined the offer. Here’s why.

The annoying truth is that the media only want to hear one thing: the poor defector who has a tragic story to tell them, shock them, and entertain them.

Admittedly, the general profile of the everyday defector is pretty dramatic: Many left North Korea to avoid starvation, political persecution, and even human trafficking. So yes, North Korean defectors do probably have ‘interesting life stories’: be they out of the ordinary, tragic, tear-jerking or just plain bizarre.

I know that some defectors are well-known globally through their life stories, published in books, social media, and news channels. They become bona fide North Korea experts. If they like getting attention, good for them. I wish them well.

I also used to think ‘why not’ and said yes a couple of times, because it felt good that some journalist from a famous media was interested in me, the lonely soul that I was. This was when I was ‘fresh off the boat,’ not long after having arrived in South Korea in 2003. After all, we all get a buzz when a TV station wants to interview us, regardless of where we come from (“Mum, dad, look at me! I was on TV!” That sorta thing). Back then, I guess I was young and naive.

But I realized that whatever I said was carefully edited, and sometimes outright distorted, to reflect the agenda or angle that that particular media wanted to pursue. They don’t care about me, but about generating more viewership, readership, and nowadays, more clicks.

And though this might sound crazy to some (and I’m sure many defectors will disagree with me), I don’t want to add to the representations of horror from North Korea, nor do I want to abnormalize the nation which is already too often depicted as the outcast, the ‘never-before-seen Hermit Kingdom.’

We are, after all, talking about my hometown and the country where I was born. It is where I grew up, went to school, and had friends. It is where my entire family still lives, who still don’t know about the outside world.

Like many other defectors, of course I have good and bad memories of North Korea. If I had only good memories, I wouldn’t have left my hometown.

But understand that it is difficult for me to talk wholly negatively about my past: When I was there, though I might not have been eating properly, I thought that everything around me was normal, that that was life. It is only in retrospect that I realize the norm I knew was wrong in so many ways.

I’ve been told that maybe it’s because I was a child, that I might have embellished, romanticized memories. But the fact is, I will always have fond memories that do not link in any way to the state of horror that we so frequently see in the news.

And there is a deeper reason why I, like many others, don’t want to be involved in media interviews: It’s called trauma.

Someone who has suffered, or had to endure a terrible experience or event, will do everything to avoid talking about it. The person will try to avoid anything associated with that terrible memory. This is a common symptom of trauma.  

I’d like to think of myself as a normal person, leading a normal life, having overcome my trauma. I’ve learned that the best way to move on with my life is to distance myself from any information that may trigger the bad memories — it’s worked so far.

But every so often, negative flashbacks do come back (though not as severely as before). Usually, the flashbacks come in the form of nightmares: I find myself suddenly back in North Korea. I am desperate to throw away my wallet and hide any traces of my South Korean citizenship. Suddenly the police appear out of nowhere. I’m trying to escape again. Where do I go? Am I going to die?

I wake up, and I realize it was just a bad dream. I am certain that most defectors have had similar dreams.

These dreams at night don’t appear out of nowhere. They are triggered by events or information we come across during our waking hours — things that are associated with North Korea — including those journalists that want to milk our traumatic experiences, time and time again.

I am told many times to capitalize on it, sell my story, and be part of the juicy North Korea story mill, but for now, I think I’ll pass (besides, I don’t think I’m handsome enough).

All eyes and ears are on the third inter-Korean summit between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un happening on Apr. 27. It will no doubt be dramatic, and I wish them well. I sincerely do wish for peace on the Korean Peninsula.

But when they meet on Friday, I will be at my desk in the office, working like everyone else. I might watch the summit on TV later, but my guess about what will happen is just as good as anyone else’s.

That’s the other strange thing: media outlets asking North Korean defectors for analysis of the political situation, and we often are asked.

In all honesty, what on earth do I know about North Korea? (Okay, I do know that Kim Jong-un is fat and had a Swiss education — like everyone else knows.) I left that country when I was 15 — I’ve spent more time outside than inside. I have more stories to tell about South Korea than North Korea.

My primary goal is to make a living, and bring rice on the table. I don’t care if the leaders of North and South Korea will kiss each other, where they will sit, or what will be on the menu. Right now it looks like a massive wedding feast and everyone’s invited (nearly 3,000 journalists from inside and outside South Korea).

A Korean proverb goes: “There is nothing to eat at a crowded party,”  which loosely translates into English as “much noise and no substance.” While I sincerely hope for the opposite, that’s all I have to say on the summit, since most people are curious about my ‘expert’ thoughts.

North Korea is a bizarre story. A popular one at that. But North Korea is also my past. I don’t want to live in it. I don’t know what the country is like these days. I want to build my own future instead of reliving my past. I don’t want to forever be labelled a ‘North Korean defector’ and live with the weight of North Korea constantly on my back.

I look forward to creating my own stories, and not those of North Korea.


한국어로 읽기 (Korean version)

Cover image: Pyongyang in 1988. (Source: Derzsi Elekes Andor via Wikimedia Commons, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported)

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