Growing Up As A North Korean Defector

Despite moving many times for safety and protection, North Korean defector Susie Seo made her education a top priority. She is now attending college in the U.S. and is hoping to work in cyber security when she graduates.

To help North Korean escapees pursue higher education and build productive, prosperous lives as new Americans, the Bush Institute awarded eight recipients the North Korea Freedom Scholarship. The scholarship will support escapees pursuing a range of educational opportunities at a variety of post-secondary institutions, including traditional four-year university programs, community colleges, and trade and vocational schools. 

Below is the story of recipient Susie Seo. The interview was conducted by Bush Institute Human Freedom Intern Jeff Kim.

You were born in China, but still had to choose to go to the United States or South Korea. Why did you come to the United States, rather than go to South Korea? 

My mother actually left China first to go to Thailand and seek out an opportunity for my family. A church dedicated to helping North Koreans assisted her in getting to Thailand, and eventually helped us all go there. We couldn’t become citizens in China because we were there illegally and in hiding.  She left China with the idea that Thailand would be a stepping stone for an opportunity in America. She had heard about the popular culture of America, being the land of opportunity and the “American Dream” this is what pushed her to pick the United States. She wanted to go to the U.S. and provide me with a good quality education and a chance to see the world. 

So, there were several times we wanted to give up and go to South Korea because of the process. For some reason the process of going to South Korea, the waiting process was way shorter. Actually, a lot of people go to South Korea because of that and we met many North Korean defectors who ended up going to South Korea because they couldn’t wait any longer, they couldn’t keep hiding in a foreign land. However, my mother just pushed on forward and she wanted to provide me with a good education and that’s why we came to the United States. 

What was growing up in China like as a child of a North Korean Defector? 

I was born in an area of China that was really close to North Korea; this area is typically known to have many Korean-Chinese living there. So, the language they speak there is mostly Korean, but my mother made me speak Chinese because there was no reason for me to speak Korean if I was going to live in China. I started learning Chinese and I started learning fast, almost to the point that other people living there thought I was Chinese. I also didn’t know any Korean at that time. Eventually, we moved on from that rural area because school was never an option there. We moved more to central China. There, I was able to attend grade school until I was in third grade before moving to Thailand and coming to the United States. We had to live in Thailand for two years just waiting for the process to come to the United States, which took almost a year and a half. 

Why is education important to you? 

For me, I think, it is where I get the education. My mother would always tell me stories about North Korea and she would encourage me and tell me why I need to do better in the United States. She actually graduated from one of the top colleges that was for training government officials and she graduated as one of the top in her class. She came from a family of government officials, a very wealthy family by North Korean standards. She had a nice future in North Korea, but she realized even with what she had and the education she received, she knew that she would still have no dreams or any other opportunity. She would always tell me if I try hard enough I could be anything here. Even with any education, if I can learn from there then I can go little further, learn more, go to a better college, try harder and be able to better myself. 

You plan to study computer engineering, what are your long-term ambitions and goals? 

My long-term goal is– I want to get into cyber security. I think cyber security is really important, especially on the national level, so that is something I’m really interested in. But, for now, my goal is honestly to graduate. 

What was the biggest challenge you faced trying to adjust to daily life here in the U.S? 

I think it was growing up in a very different culture, America has so many different cultures all mixed up together. For me, it was definitely difficult to understand certain types of cultural differences, what I am expected to understand from other people’s cultures.  

What can ordinary people do for the people of North Korea? Are there things you hope to do to improve the situation there? 

I had a really passionate conversation with my social studies teacher. It was about how people in North Korea need to fight for themselves and they need information from outside. If somehow information can leak into North Korea, it can shatter their whole understanding about North Korea being the best country out there. Knowing how desperate they are, the people think that’s their only option and they can’t really do much about it. But, if they can see that there is a different world out there, I feel like people will definitely speak out.  

What is your day-to-day life like and what do you do for fun?    

I think I am very much “Americanized” now, I hang out with my friends whenever I get the chance. I just recently graduated from high school, so I am waiting to go to college. So, now I’m just busy with work and getting ready for college.  

I like to travel whenever I get the opportunity to do so. Las year, I went to Japan and South Korea as a volunteer for the North Korean Church that helped my mom and I escape. I went and volunteered in South Korea teaching English, and I was able to help the same church that helped us during our time of need. 

Jeff Kim is a Human Freedom Initiative intern.