The South Korean Photographer Suyeon Yun was eight years old when she saw her first North Korean. It was 1981 and she was watching TV. “I was totally shocked by his appearance. He had a human head! Maybe I was a dumb kid, but my curiosity was bigger than my stupidity. I asked my first-grade teacher, ‘Why does he have a human head and not an evil, wild pig’s head?’ She said, ‘That’s because he is a good North Korean, who defected to the Republic of Korea’.”
Years later, returning to her native Soul after college in America, Yun finally met a North Korean—a sixteen-year-old girl who had escaped to China when she was ten, during the great North Korean famine of the mid-1990s. Chinese police sent the girl back to North Korea, where she was held in a prison camp until she again escaped. She was fourteen when she finally reached South Korea and she told Yun she hadn’t even known that this other Korea existed until she crossed the border.
Two Koreas, hiding from each other and hidden to themselves—this is the “absurdist comedy” that Suyeon Yun captures in her photographs. The thirty-eighth parallel, the ceasefire line that bisects the Korean peninsula, splits North from South but also binds the two countries together in a common destiny that mutual blindness has rendered indecipherable.
Until the death in 1994 of North Korea’s self-proclaimed Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, only a couple hundred defectors from the Communist dictatorship had ever made it to the South. In the ensuing years, however, famine drove as many as a million Northerners across the border into China. Of those who escaped, some six thousand eventually found their way to Seoul, bringing with them harrowing stories of brutalization and loss. The stories of their ordeals—of prison camps, of hiding and indentured servitude in China, of traffickers who smuggled them across the length and breadth of Asia, and of their bewildering “homecoming” to the alien, futuristic cityscapes of Seoul—were so beyond Suyeon Yun’s own reality that they seemed to her “almost like fiction.” And these were the lucky North Koreans: hundreds of thousands more languish in stateless limbo in China and more than a million are believed to have died of hunger before they could escape.
As the number of North Korean refugees has grown in the South, so have complaints against them. Barely schooled and often psychologically unfit for the ultramodern life of the South, the Northerners are granted rent-free apartments and settlement stipends by the state. It is not uncommon in Seoul to hear it said that the government is doing more for these foreigners than for “its own.” At the same time, the refugees tend to feel excluded and isolated, warehoused as “useless” people by a state that considers them a burdensome obligation.
Last year, Suyeon Yun immersed herself in the world of North Koreans in Seoul and found that they remained in many ways as invisible as they had been on the far side of the thirty-eighth parallel. Rather than “expose” her hidden subjects with her camera, Yun makes their “hiddenness” a central feature of her work, so that her portraits of individual North Koreans are also portraits of Seoul.
“The title of each picture is a person’s name with the date of escape from the North and the date of arrival in the south,” Yun says. “In between those dates, of course, is the journey, the person’s story. But the scene you’re looking at is just the simple daily life in South Korea. It might give you a little entertainment to find the title person in the picture. Whether or not you do, I’m hoping you will find yourself in one of these scenes.”