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On YouTube, North Korean refugees chase fame, profit and understanding

Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

INJE, South Korea — Her hair pulled back in a careless ponytail and a GoPro camera trailing her every step, Seok Hyeon Ju wanders with a kitchen knife across an empty cornfield strewn with fallen stalks.

She's on the hunt for naengi, a spring green known as shepherd's purse that grows in the toughest soil, which years ago she foraged as a starving child in the mountains of North Korea. She picks some and then lets out a delighted squeal when she spots a shriveled ear of corn left over from last year's harvest.

She turns toward the camera — and some 9,000 of her YouTube subscribers — and says such a discovery would have been unbelievably lucky when she lived through a devastating famine before making her way south to a new life.

"We were so, so hungry when we were young," the 33-year-old says, popping a hard kernel into her mouth, before pronouncing: "Not delicious."

Seok, who calls herself "Bukhan Aeminai," North Korean slang for girl, is part of a flourishing subgenre of YouTube channels featuring North Korean refugees talking about their ordeals. They tell of how they fled the authoritarian government. They compare North and South Korean makeup styles, recount what it was like to adjust in a capitalist country or — something that would have been unthinkable back home — criticize the North Korean government. They also cook and eat, play pranks on passers-by on the street or react to Cardi B.

Everyone who has left the ironclad, secretive nation of North Korea has, by default, a dramatic tale of life under totalitarian rule, escape and survival. Seok's involves a 2 1/2-year stint in a Pyongyang prison when she was 17 for crossing the border into China, passing out in the frigid waters of the Tumen River while a soldier held her at gunpoint, and being sold as a bride to an illiterate man in China.

 

As refugees have trickled out of the dictatorship over the last two decades, some have shared their stories through journalists, talk shows and speeches to global audiences curious about life in a nuclear-armed land ruled by a third-generation cult of personality. But the majority of the escapees chose to live under the radar, fearing for the fate of family left behind who would be punished in their stead, and unable to shake the chill of living in a society where expressing one's opinion could result in prison or worse.

At the same time, North Korea's young leader Kim Jong Un increasingly had the world rapt, presiding over missile tests and parades, galloping across snowy fields on a white stallion, having his half brother murdered in spy-novel fashion and befriending first Dennis Rodman, and later Donald Trump.

But in recent years those images have been at least partially eclipsed by refugees like Seok who have discovered YouTube — and the power, popularity and profitability of their own stories.

The number of North Korean refugees running their own YouTube channels has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, as opportunities and income have waned from speeches, lectures or performances. What had been a couple of dozen YouTube channels run by the talbukmin, as North Korean refugees are known here, has grown to more than 100, several of them with hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Among them is a 33-year-old who said he left North Korea in November 2019 and launched his YouTube channel within months of arriving in the South.

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