How learning about North Korea made me more Korean

Seo Yoon Yang, COL & WH ’25, Chattanooga, TN

Visiting my homeland for the first time in almost five years as an adult, living alone in Seoul, South Korea–one of the busiest cities in Asia–this summer, I reconciled my Korean American identity while exploring one of the least discussed humanitarian crises of the 21st century. Through the support of the Wharton Business School and Penn Career Services, I interned at Saejowi, one of the oldest NGOs in South Korea dedicated to North Korean defector resettlement and integration into capitalist society and conducted research on the financial systems outlining the escape route for North Koreans.

From the very first day, I helped tally the results of a 1000+ person survey conducted at the Gwanghwamun Unification Festival, asking the question, “When do you think Reunification (the reunion of North and South Korea as a single country) will happen?” The results of the survey found that 62.8% of respondents believed it could take place within 10 years, which was 50 years earlier than I had ever hoped. The night before I had left America, I remember distinctly telling my friend that one of the greatest wishes was for Reunification to happen in my lifetime, and from the first day of my internship, I was exposed to a new possible reality for my birth country.

I even had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit Hanawon, the reeducation center for North Korean refugees organized and facilitated by the South Korean government. When North Korean refugees successfully reach the borders of South Korea, they first undergo two months of questioning to determine if they were sent as spies, and once they pass that stage, are sent to Hanawon for three months to, for lack of better words, receive a “crash course on modern life.” I got the visit the hidden facility firsthand, learning about how North Koreans need to learn everything to integrate into South Korean society, from how to use a credit card to the cultural significance of BTS and PSY’s “Gangnam Style.”

Yet, my most memorable experiences were not the field trips or even visiting the demilitarized military zone (DMZ) for the first time; it was sitting in the North Korean advising medical clinics funded by Saejowi. Saejowi has five medical clinics around South Korea, which offers free medical counseling for North Koreans. This advising includes information about medical subsidies offered to North Koreans, encouragement to receive mental health services, and recommendations of doctors who are more receptive to North Korean patients.

Sitting in the barely 15 by 15 room at the National Medical Center in Seoul, I observed, for hours, what the little clinic meant to the North Korean defector community. How the two relatively old sofas, two bookshelves, and a water dispenser system created a safe space in the chaotic and overwhelming capitalist society these people were foreign to. And the hardships of the community who have been pressured to articulate their escape only as their greatest fortune. A 70-year-old refugee took me out to lunch and explained how he experiences language barriers in South Korea from things as simple as counting the number of kilos weighing vegetables at the market. The woman working at the clinic told me I reminded her of her 19-year-old daughter who she had to leave behind in North Korea. My fellow intern and I helped research university scholarships for a mother who wanted her son to study in a country void of North Korean prejudice.

The North Korean humanitarian crisis was always a phenomenon I knew existed but had never gotten the chance to thoroughly investigate and process. Yet, dedicating my summer learning about the North Korean banking system, the general South Korean population’s disregard and disinterest in the North Korea crisis, and the possibilities for future reunification of the two countries helped me understand my identity as a Korean more than the multiple summers visiting my grandparents in my hometown of Busan growing up. It’s why I identify as Korean, not South Korean, because the beauty and resilience of the Korean people exceeds any border.

This is part of a series of posts by recipients of the 2023 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they spent their summer. You can read the entire series here

By Career Services
Career Services