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Years ago in Yonsa, a baby North Korean boondocks aing to the bound with China, association aggregate to watch a man die. Executioners angry him by his neck, and waist to a log in the boondocks square, afresh attempt 90 bullets into him. Aback it was over, all that remained were two legs.

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The man, an controlling at a trading company, had been ratted out for illegally acid bottomward and affairs copse into China. Aback the badge came to his property, they begin his break baiter abounding with abounding of cash. Or so the adventure goes amid locals.

But it was what became of this man’s babe that apparitional 12-year-old Kim So Won. The babe was alpine and beautiful, and she fabricated baby but adventuresome appearance statements. “I bethink she wore earrings and bound jeans,” says So Won. “And she wore a bound red jacket.” Such adornments were not clearly accustomed in the Autonomous People’s Republic of Korea. Rumours broadcast that the babe could jump absurd distances; that she could fly beyond a room. “She was a star.”

Then one day, in 2007, not continued afterwards her ancestor had been about executed, the babe vanished. No one anytime saw or heard from her again. But So Won would consistently bethink the earrings, the angular jeans, the red jacket.

The appearance in every administration from So Won’s home in Yonsa was bedeviled by mountains dotted with potato plants in autumn and strawberries in spring. The ambit they alleged “the asthmatic mountain” barricaded Yonsa from the Tumen river; in some ways, it acquainted like a bastille wall. Beyond that baptize was China and the blow of the world. Actuality so aing to addition life, in a way that civil North Koreans were not, was the hardest part.

With two accommodation and a artifice of acreage for growing vegetables, the Kims’ home was ample by North Korean standards. So Won lived with her average sister, So Yeon, who was three years older, forth with their mother and father, an architect who afterwards became the boondocks drunk. “It was such a decay for him to animate in North Korea,” So Won says. “He was consistently bubbler to abstain reality.”

The absoluteness was that North Korea’s arrangement had continued ago accomplished to function: its abridgement had stalled, its government was atrocious and its bodies were growing added acquainted that their lives had afflicted for the worse. From 1945 – aback the Korean peninsula was breach by the United States and the Soviet Union afterward the Japanese activity and the additional apple war – until the 1970s, North Korea was the richer of the two nations. The antipathetic North enjoyed bigger basement and a stronger abridgement than the autonomous South; some Koreans active abroad who had the best of either country, including So Won’s grandfather, who had continued ago confused to Japan, autonomous to affirmation citizenship in the North.

But over the afterward decades, activity in North Korea confused drastically. The abatement of the Soviet Union in 1990 led to the collapse of the economy. A alternation of floods and droughts culminated in a abundant dearth and bread-and-er crisis that came to be accepted as “the backbreaking march”, abiding from 1994 to 1998. The dearth – forth with the regime’s animal rights abuses, corruption of adopted aid and funnelling of money against its nuclear programme – fatigued and dead 330,000 North Koreans, according to bourgeois estimates.

The system, which had assigned citizens to accompaniment jobs and broadcast coupons to buy aliment and added armament at accompaniment stores, started to crumble. A new chic of workers emerged, about women afterwards official posts to address to who could carefully acquisition off-the-books employment. Women who lived in the arctic alcove of the country sometimes beyond into China.

So Won’s earlier sister, nine years her senior, fled there to do odd jobs aback So Won was a baby child. Their mother formed there as a babysitter and beatific her accomplishment aback home. Her time in China afflicted everything. “She couldn’t stop earning money,” So Won says. She had planned to break for one ages but concluded up animate for added than a year.

There is a adage that the greatest blackmail to the Joseon Rodongdang (North Korea’s cardinal Workers’ Party of Korea) is the country’s added “dang” – the jangmadang, or atramentous market.

Growing up, So Won and So Yeon lived out fantasies of better, added absurd lives through whatever actionable appurtenances they could afford. The country dictates everything, from the advertising posters blind in people’s homes to the way they dress. For best North Korean women, the dress cipher is about atramentous trousers or skirts, never aloft the knee, and bashful shirts. They are accustomed to abrasion basal composition (foundation, powder) and, recently, stud earrings, but they cannot badly adapt their hair, or appearance it too continued or too short.

Mostly, So Won and So Yeon followed the rules and wore their academy uniforms of aphotic pleated skirts with braces over apparent white blouses. Aback they were not in class, they swapped their skirts for atramentous trousers and, for added flair, they ran a hot adamant over them until the creases were added sharp, or tailored them to be hardly added adapted at the hips.

Every already in a while, the sisters would apprehend that a neighbour had gone to China and banned aback accoutrements of acclimated clothes. It was a agitated birr to that neighbour’s house, with buyers avaricious a pile, any pile, and advantageous for it alike afore they could appraise what it contained. So Won and her sister consistently hoped to acquisition a red anorak and a brace of angular jeans.

Sometimes I can recognise defectors – like, ‘Oh, they came recently’ – by attractive at their outfits. It’s article unnatural, it doesn’t bout at all, because North Korean bodies accept no faculty of fashion

Defector Kim So Won

So Won did own a knock-off Adidas tracksuit and atramentous jeans absolute so aphotic they about did not attending like denim at all. She had to be accurate about breadth she wore them. Inspectors with scissors roamed the boondocks acid jeans, which were apparent as a attribute of American imperialism. Spies were everywhere. So Won’s mother alike doubtable one of So Won’s accompany of actuality an informant.

One day, So Yeon went to the atramentous bazaar to buy article she had been extenuative up for. She and her sister had bought perfumes and face creams before, but it was article alike added appropriate this time: eye make-up. Aback she sneaked aback into the house, she bent So Won’s gaze.

“Come, come, come!” She mouthed the words, her arch motioning against the added room. They hid abaft a board and removed the caps from the composition stick. One end was a baton with bristles, the added a triangle of atramentous coal. In hushed tones, they corrective anniversary other’s lashes and drew about anniversary other’s eyes.

They angry their focus to the bright eye shadow, attractive at it quizzically. What is this? What do we do with it? They were not sure, so they put it abroad unopened. Afresh they went alfresco to comedy about their house, breadth no one would see them.

The sisters additionally bought banned movies and TV shows, which are apparent as such an able agitator for alienation that they are about floated beyond the Demilitarised Zone amid the two Koreas absorbed to balloons, or bobbed beyond the sea in bottles.

It was aback 49-year-old Kang Mi Jin watched A Promise (1998), a South Korean action-romance film, that she realised her government had aria to her all her life. She had consistently been accomplished the South was impoverished, abounding with beggars captivation out tin cans. But not alone was the country depicted as wealthy, the filmmakers could allow to abort absolute sets during action scenes.

She watched A Promise eight times, ardent by the bulk of money the macho advocate spent on acceptable his adulation interest’s heart. “It’s that cine that fabricated me adjudge to escape,” she says.

So Won and So Yeon’s favourite blur was Dream of the Red Chamber (1945), not because of the storyline about a affluent Chinese ancestors – “It was boring,” says So Won – but because of the admirable women dressed in alike added admirable clothing. So Won remembers activated appearance like Cinderella (1950) and Adorableness and the Beast (1991) for their “luxurious dresses”, and a Hong Kong cine alleged So Aing (2002), for the smart, tailored trouser suit, bright beard and anxiously fabricated face of the changeable protagonist, played by Taiwan-born extra and archetypal Shu Qi.

Sitting in their active allowance with the curtains drawn, they watched every scene, anniversary added alluring than the last. They marvelled over the amaranthine best splashed beyond the screen. They admired the glint of jewellery, the animation of make-up. If they anytime fabricated it to South Korea, they thought, they would accept all those things.

After the abundant famine, bodies started beat to South Korea in greater numbers. The emphasis acclimated to call those almost 31,500 who accept resettled in the South is politically complicated. In China, they are “economic migrants”. In the Republic of Korea, amid best Koreans, both North and South, they are talbukcha, or “person who able the North”. In the Autonomous People’s Republic of Korea, no chat exists.

A all-inclusive majority of talbukcha – abstracts from South Korea’s Ministry of Affinity say 71 per cent all-embracing – are women. They about escape beyond the bound into China and afresh accomplish their way to Southeast Asia, breadth they can clearly appeal aegis at a South Korean embassy. If bent in China or antipathetic Laos and Vietnam talbukcha are at accident of repatriation to North Korea, breadth they will face imprisonment, affected labour, ache or alike execution. Few can auspiciously get to an admiral on their own, so some admit the advice of non-profit or religious accomplishment groups, while others use brokers, who bootleg them for a fee of anywhere amid US$2,500 and US$16,000

On her aftermost morning in North Korea, in 2009, So Won, afresh 14, woke up early. She and her mother larboard home afterwards adage a word, alike to her father. The alone actuality she said goodbye to was her sister, who had affairs to escape afterwards and accommodated them a Seoul. “I’ll see you soon,” So Won told her.

Two months later, afterwards activity through China and afresh Thailand (So Won’s mother had paid brokers about US$8,000), So Won sat in a antiseptic allowance at the South Korean National Intelligence Service in Seoul. She was quarantined, ability the accepted claiming to prove she was not an adversary of the state. A man and a woman asked her all about her activity in North Korea: “Describe your house. Draw your hometown. Talk about your school. Be specific. Acquaint us more.”

After the National Intelligence Service came Hanawon, the resettlement centre that handles the assimilation into the South of North Korean defectors, giving them three months of binding aborigine training afore absolution them into society. They additionally accredit North Koreans a burghal and accommodation, and appearance them how to accessible a coffer account, pay bills, boutique for necessities, use accessible transit, go to academy and get a job. Talbukcha accept the agnate of US$6,200 in antecedent resettlement abutment paid in allotments (plus US$11,700 to put against the country’s big-ticket accommodation down-payment requirements) and afresh a account active allowance of about US$380 for the aboriginal bisected year.

After a 12-week advance in democracy, commercialism and the ultra-competitive South Korean affairs – forth with a bloom screening and some abstruse counselling – So Won and her mother were absolved from Hanawon. They were beatific to Cheonan, a burghal about 80km south of Seoul, with a brace accoutrements and a few thousand dollars to their name.

So Won’s aboriginal glimpses of South Korean consumerism came as an assault. Dongdaemun Market, in the affection of Seoul, was awash and chaotic. She afraid that she ashore out, that anybody could acquaint she was a talbukcha. Saleswomen shouted, their words a accumulating of bedfast vowels; they pushed accouterment and accessories at her and asked with what seemed like suspicion, “Are you Korean?”

At that time, So Won was chonseureopda, or “a country bumpkin”, she says. “Sometimes I can recognise defectors – like, ‘Oh, they came recently’ – by attractive at their outfits. It’s article unnatural, it doesn’t bout at all, because North Korean bodies accept no faculty of fashion.”

Getting her beard done for the aboriginal time was its own anatomy of humiliation. She had dreamed of accepting long, cottony locks, but she did not apperceive breadth to go. She concluded up walking into a bargain miyongshil, or adorableness salon, breadth an earlier woman straightened her duster with chemicals that damaged her hair. Buying composition was alike harder. She had no abstraction of what looked acceptable on her. All she knew was that she capital to archetype South Korean Olympic amount skater Kim Yuna, alike if it amount her about US$20 to buy her signature blush lipstick. Afterwards abrogation the shop, So Won absurdly activated it, alone to acquisition it fabricated her attending anemic and garish. She never wore it afresh but was too abashed to bandy it abroad because it had amount a division of her account spending budget.

When I was in North Korea, I never anticipation I was ugly, but active actuality fabricated me anticipate I was animal all the time

So Won

To alloy into South Korean life, abounding women, like So Won, clutter to change their hair, their make-up, their clothing, their accents. “We appetite to attending like accustomed South Koreans,” says So Won. Standing out as North Korean alone invites prejudice. There is a boundless average in South Korea that talbukcha are lazy, ignorant, decumbent to alcoholism and a cesspool on the abundance state. North Koreans who move south are confronted by a bodies who are unfathomably foreign. The growing cultural and bread-and-er divides additionally mirror abbreviating abutment for reunification. Earlier South Koreans bethink a time aback the two countries were one and amusement accord talks with added optimism than their grandchildren. (A majority of the South Korean citizenry beheld affinity as all-important in 2017, but amid those in their 20s, the admeasurement was aloof 38.9 per cent.)

For Kim Ga Young, a 27-year-old North Korean backslider who confused to Seoul in 2013, the aboriginal footfall against assimilation was to dye her beard caramel amber and buy new make-up. It was daunting. At the store, with a acutely amaranthine arrangement of articles all about her, she acquainted paralysed. “I thought, ‘If I can’t alike aces one lipstick, how can I animate here?’” Her North Korean acquaintance opened a canteen of attach brightness and, not animate what it was, anointed it beyond her mouth.

“I anticipation I was never activity to be appealing in South Korea,” says So Won. Still, she did not appetite to change annihilation about her face, alike aback South Koreans appropriate double-eyelid surgery, a accepted procedure, or told her to aish the birthmark in the average of her chin. “When I was in North Korea, I never anticipation I was ugly, but active actuality fabricated me anticipate I was animal all the time.”

In the nine years she has been in the South, So Won has absent her North Korean accent. Through a non-profit alleged Teach North Korean Refugees, she has abstruse some English. Mostly, she is settled, and yet “I still feel article is missing”, she says. What is missing, of course, is the blow of her family. Aftermost year, So Won heard from old neighbours – who, actuality aing to the border, accessed China’s telecommunications arrangement appliance a banned adaptable buzz – that her ancestor had died.

Because So Won is disconnected by an “invisible wall” from her South Korean peers, she mostly sticks to the North Korean community. She has North Korean accompany and a North Korean boyfriend. Abounding talbukcha like So Won end up affective from their adjustment cities to the greater Seoul breadth and into neighbourhoods breadth they can accommodated added North Koreans, accompany North Korean groups and eat North Korean foods like injogogibap, a famine-time apparatus of rice and bogus meat. So Won lives with her mother, who has had a harder time adjusting, as can be the case with earlier defectors.

“Her mindset is still North Korean,” So Won says. She cannot agitate her North Korean accent, either.

Though South Korea can feel like an unaccepting place, So Won enjoys as abundant of it as she can for the account of her sister. It was in her additional year in South Korea that So Won realised her sister would not be aing her. She and her mother had been accepting updates, additionally via a banned adaptable phone, from So Yeon that she was abrogation North Korea, was en avenue beyond China and was about to ability the bound of Myanmar. But afresh the updates stopped. A few months later, she heard through her old neighbours in Yonsa what had happened: So Yeon had been arrested, beatific aback and bedevilled to 10 years in a political prison. No one has heard from her since.

So Won wonders what her sister is like today, if she is alike still alive, although she prefers not to anticipate the worst. She would rather brainstorm that her sister is abundantly unchanged, that she would appetite So Won to booty advantage of every additional of her freedom. That is what So Won tells herself, at least. Her South Korean activity feels so far from what they had envisioned.

So Won is attractive for a job now. She is aggravating to acquisition article in all-embracing relations, which she majored in. She cannot be sure, but she swears she noticed the chat about-face algid the moment she appear her North Korean accomplishments in her aftermost interview.

She had photos fabricated up. It is accepted in South Korea to accelerate a headshot with every application, no amount the position. It is additionally accepted for administration to ask applicants about their height, weight and plastic-surgery operations. So Won told the columnist not to Photoshop her face too much, to leave her adorableness mark as is. Aback she got her photos back, the amber atom was gone.

Names accept been changed. A adaptation of this adventure appeared in The California Sunday Magazine.

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