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A rare North Korean in Los Angeles says she just wants to blend in

"Elise Park" cooking pork belly at her home in Koreatown. We're not showing her face or using her real name to protect her brothers in North Korea.
Kyung Jin Lee

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The United States is home to more Korean migrants than any other country. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 1.1m live in the U.S., followed by Japan (699,000), and  China (222,000). Some 226,000 have settled in the L.A. area. Most came from South Korea, but there's also a small but growing number who defected from North Korea in the last 10 years — people like "Elise Park," who doesn't usually tell people she's from North Korea.

Like many of the few hundred North Korean immigrants living in the U.S., Park hides in plain sight within the larger Korean-American community. Park, who asked us to use a pseudonym to protect her two brothers who still live in the North, says she doesn't want to stick out — and that Korean-Americans make false assumptions, asking too many inappropriate questions about her personal life.

She says people ask, “'How did you come? How did you get enough money to be here?’ I think, why are you so curious? You don’t ask others, just people from North Korea. I just want to be treated like everyone else.”

Park left North Korea in 2004 because she lost hope for building a life there — her family background prevented her from attending the best schools or getting a good job. She lived in the northernmost province of the country, making it easier to cross the Tumen River into China. Then she went to South Korea, then L.A.

While in South Korea, she got interested in real estate and realized she needed to learn English. So she worked three jobs, saved enough money and got help from church pastors to come to the U.S. in 2011. Park now attends a local community college and says she prefers it here.

“This is a land of immigrants,” she says. “At work, this person is a Mexican immigrant, this person is an Italian immigrant. That’s what’s comfortable for me.”

Officially, there are fewer than 200 North Korean refugees who’ve come directly from China. But many more come as South Korean citizens after resettling in the South. They’re often referred as “double defectors,” because they left both countries. These North Koreans often leave the South because of the discrimination and disrespect they experience: They’re accused of being spies — and they earn less than their Southern counterparts.

(Pastor Young Gu Kim at his church in Torrance. Credit: Kyung Jin Lee)

Pastor Young Gu Kim runs "North Koreans in America," a grassroots support group based in L.A.’s Koreatown. He says all North Koreans need a lot of support once they get here.

“The hard thing is that those who left North Korea… they wander in China for three to four years. Those who are lucky meet missionaries right away, but the rest are sold to Chinese people. Those years in China were really difficult. So that’s how they have diseases and trauma," Kim says.

Kim started working with North Koreans around 15 years ago. Like many South Korean Christians aiding Northerners, his work with defectors is a way to fulfill a larger dream of starting a church in the North. He spends his days driving people to and from appointments. He translates for them, helping them find jobs and enroll kids in school. He recently started a tutoring class every Saturday for kids of North Korean immigrants in Fullerton.

Kim says it’s important to build an infrastructure of support for young people, since their parents don’t know the language or culture here. Whether you’re a kid or an adult, he says there’s a lot of differences and misunderstandings between Korean immigrants from the North and South. And they need to be seen as different cultures now, since North and South Korea have been divided for more than 60 years.

“They don’t trust anyone,” Kim says. “And they don’t say thank you. Even if they do something wrong, they don’t say sorry. Because if they said it in North Korea, they were already dead. If I do something wrong, I have to grab someone and have them take the blame for them, to survive.”

Pastor Kim calls it a "small reunification" of North and South right here in the U.S. But, “Becoming one family does not mean living together and taking responsibility for them. It’s about making a phone call, showing interest — like during holidays, sharing a turkey. It’s not that hard.”

But Elise Park is more interested in getting her degree than "reuniting" immigrants from North and South. After dinner, Park sits down to do her homework. She stays up until 3 a.m. to complete her oceanography assignment — the technical jargon is tough to understand. But she’s working hard to become an international real estate appraiser and dreams of returning to North Korea one day.

“My brothers are there,” she says. “Also, there’s no real estate in North Korea. They don’t know the concept. I want people to know how the world works.”

Pastor Kim says North Koreans are like onions — if you keep peeling, there are more layers to discover of their history, culture and politics.

But most North Korean immigrants want the same thing as the rest of us: to fit in.

Note: We've corrected the lead paragraph to reflect that there are more migrant Koreans in the United States - not Southern California - than anywhere outside Korea.