Trace freedom to a pair of jeans

Upon arrival, the defectors spend up to three months being investigated by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service while living in an isolated building in the mountains. If approved, they go to a settlement center called Hanawon, where defectors learn the basics of banking, technology and shopping.

Part of this education often includes a trip to a department store, where Hanawon students are given money for shopping. Although North Korea is said to have a handful of department stores stocked with Western brands for the 1%, the trip to Hanawon is a first for most defectors.

Kang Nara, who lost all of her clothes crossing the Yalu River in 2014, said she remembered choosing a K-Swiss quilted vest lined with raccoon fur, an article her teacher told her was stylish for children his age. Ms. Yoon described the mall she attended, Shinsegae (meaning “new world”), as “an amazing alternate world”. She remembered buying short cotton ruffle pajamas that she had seen in the Korean drama “Stairway to Heaven”.

When they left Hanawon, the three women discovered that everyday life in South Korea was hardly like what they had seen on television when they lived in North Korea. Jihyun Kang, who defected in 2009, said it was the first time she really thought about spending on dressing well and found the everyday South Korean style disappointing.

“The more I looked at the clothes, the more I understood the quality,” she said. “I wanted more beautiful things, but I couldn’t afford them. In Korean dramas, everyone wears colorful and expensive clothes and changes often, but in real life it wasn’t like that at all.

Kang Nara said she doesn’t understand why wealthy people dress so simple and that she struggles to swallow some trends from her freshman year. “I was horrified by these Justin Bieber style low cut pants,” she said.


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