College of Education > News and Publications > 2017: 04-06 news > Doctoral student focuses research on North Korean defectors

Doctoral student focuses research on North Korean defectors

Regardless of the things that make people different, there is one thing we all have in common. We all are human beings and we all deserve to be happy. This philosophy is the driving force behind doctoral candidate Jinhee Choi's interest in researching the experiences of North Korean defectors living in South Korea.

Jinhee Choi, talks about her experiences working as a barista alongside North Korean defectors in South Korea, as part of her doctoral research.UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Regardless of the things that make people different, there is one thing we all have in common. We all are human beings and we all deserve to be happy. This philosophy is the driving force behind doctoral candidate Jinhee Choi's interest in researching the experiences of North Korean defectors living in South Korea.

"I want to study how North Korean defectors learn to adjust to their life in the workplace, specifically in the cafe setting," said Choi, who is entering her fourth year in Penn State's Lifelong Learning and Adult Education program. "I want to look at how they adjust but also how their past experiences shape their current work experience, and how they learn to develop their commitment to work and social relationships."

Choi decided that the only way to understand these experiences was to work side-by-side with defectors as a peer. In 2016 through her contacts in South Korea, she was hired to work as a barista at two coffee shops alongside North Korean defectors. During her two months of work, she began exploring ideas that have become the foundation of her dissertation research.

“[Defectors] have had abusive employment relationships in North Korea, China and even in South Korea. How can we expect them to build positive social relationships without having a good example to follow?”

— Jinhee Choi, doctoral student

During her first week on the job, she said she quickly learned what her coworkers expected from her.

“I was scolded by the North Korean baristas very frequently due to my relatively slow work speed and less-than-perfect barista skills,” she said, admitting that she often thought about quitting as a result of the heavy workload and harsh treatment she received from her coworkers. But then, she recognized that their behaviors were influenced by their past experiences and treatment in the workplace.

"I realized that the way they treated me reflected their past workplace experiences and social relationships in North Korea, China and South Korea," Choi said. "It wasn’t really a personal attack; they treated me the same way they had been treated by others."

She added that two coworkers once told her that their previous work experiences were much worse than what she was experiencing. "You cannot imagine. The treatment you're getting here is nothing," she recalled them telling her.

“They have had abusive employment relationships in North Korea, China and even in South Korea," Choi said. "How can we expect them to build positive social relationships without having a good example to follow?”

Because of this reality, the cafes' CEO, who also is a North Korean defector, built the cafes specifically to provide North Korean defectors with an exemplary workplace experience.

The perils of escaping the communist regime of Kim Jong-un do not end once a North Korean defector crosses the border. Many defectors first leave North Korea by way of China. Once in China, the defectors must live in secrecy for fear of the Chinese authorities arresting them and returning them to North Korea.

South Korean barista sketch
Jinhee Choi could not take pictures of her experiences working as a barista alongside North Korean refugees in South Korea, because she needs to protect their identity for her research. Instead, she drew sketches including this one.
"Many defectors cross the Tumen River and enter China, which is very dangerous," Choi said, explaining that China does not accept defectors and will deport them back to North Korea if caught. If that happens, defectors face harsh punishments from the North Korean government, including years of imprisonment and re-education at camps where conditions are inhumane, she said.

When defectors make their way to China, they are introduced to a capitalistic society for the first time and learn how to earn money. Many gravitate toward the service industry, where it is easier to remain hidden.

"During the whole defection process in China, people abuse them and treat them inhumanely," Choi said, explaining that many employers pay low wages and force defectors to work long hours in bad conditions. "The employers know the defectors cannot report anything because if they do, they'll be sent back to North Korea. They'll be exposed." Many employers take advantage of defectors, Choi said, because they are seen as cheap labor.

When defectors eventually reach South Korea, a country that openly accepts defectors and grants citizenship to North Koreans, they are obliged to complete a three-month education program that teaches them basic life skills. They then are released and must live a new life in an unfamiliar economic and political system.

"They learn how to live their lives," Choi said. "How to take a bus. How to go to school. How to get a job. How to use money. Things that are normal for everybody else, but this is the first time defectors have been able to experience this kind of society."

"My goal is to improve the social and work conditions of defectors in their lives after the regime. I hope to increase international awareness on the social, psychological and economic barriers defectors face when they integrate into society."

— Jinhee Choi

Having the opportunity to work with North Korean defectors was an eye-opening experience for which Choi says she is grateful.

"Working with defectors has been so beneficial because I got to know them as people," Choi said. "I got to learn about who they were — their families, their interests — things you learn about anybody you work with."

The more time she spent with her coworkers, the more she realized that they have been dealt an unfair hand in life, she said.

"Defectors must learn to live again," Choi said. "After the education program, they are on their own. They have no family; most of their family is still in the north. They can't go home on the holidays to see them. Everything is very different."

As she prepares for her dissertation, Choi said she intends to return to the South Korean cafes and once again work with North Korean defectors.

"My first experience with this community taught me that while defectors are reluctant to fully trust anybody (even each other), they are willing to share with me their past and current life's story with the hope that I can give them a voice that can be heard on a broader scale," she said.

Choi said she hopes her research will lead South Korea to establish workplace intervention programs for defectors so that they may secure stable and sustainable employment. Her ultimate goal, she said, is to help give North Korean defectors a chance for a renewed and healthy life that they do not always receive after their arrival in South Korea.

“North Korean defectors who make it to South Korean soil are mentally and emotionally strong," Choi said. "They survived life in the north and they survived the defection journey, often having been abused and living in fear for years. My goal is to improve the social and work conditions of defectors in their lives after the regime. I hope to increase international awareness on the social, psychological and economic barriers defectors face when they integrate into society."

She said she believes that defectors are able to make meaningful and important contributions to their new home countries when they receive proper education and social support.

"In the long-term, I hope to break down barriers so that the two communities could be unified as 'Koreans,' without regard for origins in the north or south," Choi said.

By Jessica Buterbaugh (May 2017)