Tracing Freedom to a Pair of Jeans

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

Part of this education often includes a field trip to a department store, where Hanawon students are given shopping money. Though North Korea reportedly has a handful of department stores stocked with Western brands for the 1 percent, the Hanawon trip is a first for most defectors.

Kang Nara, who lost all her clothes while crossing the Yalu River in 2014, said she remembered picking out a K-Swiss padded vest lined with raccoon fur, an item her teacher told her was stylish for kids her age. Ms. Yoon described the mall she attended, Shinsegae (meaning “new world”), as “an amazing, alternate world.” She recalled buying a pair of short cotton pajamas with frilled trim she had seen on the Korean drama “Stairway to Heaven.”

When they left Hanawon, all three of the women found that everyday South Korean life hardly resembled 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 the expenses of dressing well and found everyday South Korean style disappointing.

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

Kang Nara said she couldn’t understand why people with money dressed so plainly and that she had a hard time swallowing some trends her first year. “I was horrified by those low-hanging, Justin Bieber-style pants,” she said.

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