North-South Korean couples try to bridge 75-year division

Full Screen
1 / 9

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

North Korean refugee Kim Seo-yun and her South Korean husband Lee Jeong-sup watch their wedding photos at their house in Seoul, South Korea Thursday, July 23, 2020. Tens of thousands of North Koreans, mostly women, have fled to South Korea over the past two decades. Arriving from a nominally socialist, extremely repressive society, these women often struggle to adjust to fast-paced, capitalistic lives in South Korea. They also face widespread discrimination, bias and loneliness. Many want to marry South Korean men, who they think will help them better adjust to new lives in South Korea. The number of these North-South Korean couples appears to be on the rise, according to at least one government survey. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

SEOUL – On their second date last year, feeling a little drunk at a seaside restaurant, Kim Seo-yun let slip a revelation to her South Korean love interest: She had fled North Korea a decade ago, something that sometimes made her feel ashamed in a country where North Korean defectors can face discrimination.

Her companion, Lee Jeong-sup, jokingly asked if she was a spy but then told her there was nothing wrong with coming from North Korea.

Lee proposed in March and in June they got married at a Seoul hotel. Kim’s family, still in North Korea, obviously couldn’t attend.

“In South Korea, my husband is my everything. I have no one else here. He told me that he would play the role of not only my husband but also my parents,” Kim, 33, said. “I feel much more stable now.”

It’s an increasingly common scenario.

More than 70% of the 33,000 North Koreans who have fled to South Korea are women, a reflection in part of North Korea’s tendency to more closely monitor men.

While there are no official numbers on how many North Korean defectors have married South Korean men, a 2019 government-funded survey of 3,000 North Koreans living in the South suggested that 43% of married women were living with South Korean husbands, up from 19% in 2011.

Arriving from a nominally socialist, extremely repressive society, these women often struggle to adjust to fast-paced, capitalistic lives in South Korea. They also face widespread discrimination, bias and loneliness.