Kato, participates in “Ask Me Anything” session

Here’s some background information that may give you a richer understanding of the NK refugees.


Last year our Executive Director, Hiroshi Kato, participated in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session on Reddit. It was his first-ever AMA and he was really impressed with the quality of the questions he received, which ranged from defectors’ life skills to misconceptions about North Korea. We have included the questions and answers he received, edited slightly for readability.

We hope you enjoy reading it, and feel free to add your own questions and comments on Facebook or Twitter!

Q: What do you find to be the biggest challenges for NK refugees to overcome? Not just economically, but personally and socially.

A: Probably one of the biggest problems for NK refugees is the cultural differences. People who resettle in South Korea struggle with language problems (even though it’s Korean, it’s quite different) and differences in work ethic. Younger people find it a bit easier to fit in.

Q: Is the language barrier between SK and NK that great? I understand there has been 60 years almost since the cease fire, so I guess so. But do people really see that much of one?


A: There is definitely a huge difference between the two.
For example, in South Korea, “daughter” or “young lady” is “agashi”. But if you say that in North Korea rather than “tongmu” (comrade), you’re likely to get a punch in the face as it has the nuance of “prostitute.”
Also in North Korea, there are still a lot of Japanese words in use from the colonial period, whereas South Korea purged most of them.
And of course in the South there are a lot of English loan words, which don’t exist in North Korea, and a lot of NK refugees struggle with these.

Q: It is a shame that barely 60 years separates SK and NK but they are totally different.

Now a total question with the difference involved:
A lot of people, myself included, see invading NK or trying to change it, as a wayyy bigger venture, because of the geopolitics involved with SK, China, Russia, US, everyone, and the sudden influx of $ and supplies that would have to happen. What is your response?
PS. If you have time, even on a different account, I would recommend staying on Reddit! Sometimes NK talks pop up and you could provide great insight.

A: NK, SK, US, Russia, China, Japan are definitely key to the resolution of the problems in NK. At the moment, China is very powerful and what it wants/thinks counts for a lot.
Talks among these 6 countries are really the only way forward but NK isn’t participating seriously. NK is of course focusing on the military aspect…although I doubt it will go as far as actually destroying itself with its military adventures.
It is complicated…when the Berlin Wall fell, W Germany was able to cover/support E Germany but I can’t say the same about SK and NK.
Btw thanks for the comment about Reddit…I’m new to this but yes looking forward to other great discussions on here!

Q: I love your comment about the Berlin Wall. It makes sense. There was such a major exposure there, and would be here as well. Hopefully the world would be very open to helping.
I mean the reddit comment :) I forget exactly when but a NK refugee just did an AMA. I would love to see you contact him, and, be active in these talks. If you have any questions about that, please, feel free to private message me and I will be more than willing to help.

A: Yes I think you are referring to Kang Chol Hwan who did an AMA recently. We are definitely in contact with the group he heads and work together when we can.
And if there is anything you are interested in getting involved with, it would be more than welcome :)

Q: What misconceptions do people in the west have about people from NK?
What is the biggest message you would like to convey to people about NK/NK refugees and what we could do to help?

A: As for Westerners’ misconceptions, it’s probably more a matter of lack of knowledge. A lot of people don’t distinguish between North and South Korea.
And as for a message…I guess it would be that I’d like people to understand just how tough it is for North Koreans to adjust and to fit in to their new lives.

Q: Thank you for this AMA!
Could you comment on how North Korean refugees adjust to life outside North Korea? Do they need to learn a great deal of the skills that we take for granted in our day-to-day life (e.g. what to buy at the grocery store, jobs, the internet, etc.) or are they not as cut off or insular as we might think?
Perhaps that last one is dependent on who you see, so could you comment on who your refugees tend to be? Everyday folk (e.g. farmers or industrial workers), or the lower tiers of their elites / leadership (e.g. military, bureaucrats, teachers)?

A: You are right that there is a lot of knowledge about daily life that people struggle with. For example, in Japan and South Korea, people use electronic cards for bus/trains, whereas in North Korea they would pay with cash and have someone punch the ticket.
In the supermarket there are some cultural differences too. For example, for North Koreans it’s normal to sample various food in the grocery store, whereas in Japan we do not!
And things like having to line up for buying tickets, etc., instead of butting in line…as well as knowing how to use banks/ATMs.
As for information…the elites in NK, who live in Pyongyang, are allowed to travel outside so they know a lot more about the outside world. People living in the countryside/farmers etc., don’t have access to the same information.

Q: What’s your favorite book?
Favorite food?
Any Life-threatening event?

A: I have lots of favorite books but “Camp 14” by Blaine Harden is really good.
Food? apples :)
And I don’t know if you’d call it a life-threatening event, but back in 2002 the Chinese government put a price on my head for my activities…they don’t like us :)

Q: Are the Christian fundamentalists meddling in North Korea doing more harm than good?

A: My feeling about that is that they care less about helping people for humanitarian reasons and are only interested in proselytizing. Some of them host/take care of North Koreans in China, teaching them about the Bible and then send them back into North Korea with Bibles…I can’t understand this at all…they have no idea what could happen to them once they get back to North Korea.

Q: What kind of pressure do you think it would take for North Korea to stop committing human rights violations? Do you think governments like the US and organizations like the UN should put pressure on them to disband their prison camps?

A: The North Korean regime doesn’t think it’s doing anything particularly bad – different from the rest of the world. But the international community does need to review/observe/report on the very serious abuses that are happening there, even if we can’t necessarily change them.
The COI (Commission of Inquiry) is a recent example of this effort from the international community.

Q: Thanks for this AMA!
What are the implications for NK refugees leaving family members and friends behind? Are there refugees that show regret of their decision to defect- either due to difficulties adjusting to their new culture and life or for those they couldn’t bring with them?

A: That’s a great question.
Definitely there are, whether they resettle in SK or in Japan. In general, because there is a big risk of their family and friends suffering in NK because of their decision to leave, NK refugees don’t speak out publicly, to protect their families still in NK.

Thank you very much everyone for your great questions and comments today! I really appreciate you joining in my first AMA.

Read the full Reddit AMA here!