By Soomin Kim, Rotary International Staff
Most of the members the Rotary Club of Ulsan Jayu (meaning freedom in Korean) are refugees emigrants from North Korea. Many risked their lives emigrating in pursuit of greater opportunities and are still struggling to adapt to South Korean society. Through the humanitarian service work of South Korean Rotary clubs, immigrants are healing and increasing their sense of belonging and pride as productive citizens of society. Club President Ju-Eun Seok shares her journey and the role Rotary plays in her life.
Soomin Kim: What hardships did you overcome before coming to Korea?
Ju-Eun Seok: I left North Korea in 1997 and crossed the Yalu River with my high school friends. I married a local farmer in Liaoning Province, China and lived there for 6 years. In 2003, I was finally able to arrive to the Republic of Korea.
Life in China had always been anxious and tough because of the fear that I might get discovered and forced to return to North Korea. My husband and I had to frequently flee during the night to avoid the crackdowns by Chinese officials.
SM: Tell me about your difficulties in the settlement process.
JS: I thought people in South Korea would be similar to the people of North Korea since we share the same language, history, culture, customs, and more. But I was wrong. I found myself in a different society run by a system I had never experienced, I was confused and frustrated. Language was especially difficult, as I could not understand what people were saying; they used unfamiliar capitalism terms such as “stock market” or “investment” and English words had become integrated into everyday conversation.
In addition to the communication barrier, I did not have any connection to this new country except my refugee friends, who like me, did not have any knowledge of the country. I had to learn and solve every problem I faced on my own.
SM: How did you connect with Rotary?
JS: Over the last 15 years, I received support from people I met along the way. Without their help and encouragement, I would not be here today. Several years ago, in order to give back to the community, I started to volunteer along with my refugee friends for a local facility for children.
In 2016, then District 3721 Governor, Hae-sang Choi, who is a member of the National Unification Advisory Council and has worked to support North Korean refugees, suggested to charter a new Rotary club with my fellow refugee friends. He said, “You don’t have any connections to this society, but Rotary can be your starting point to build relationships with the community. You can feel a sense of belonging and learn the joys of helping others.”
He arranged for the Rotary Club of Ulsan Dadeok to mentor us in the process of starting a club. Thanks to Past District Governor Choi and our Rotarian friends from Rotary Club of Ulsan Dadeok, our club was chartered in July 2016 and my Rotary journey started.
SM: How has Rotary impact your life and the lives of fellow club members?
JS: The very first reason our members started service activities at the children’s center was because many members had to separate with their families in the process of escaping North Korea.
Every last Saturday of the month, we visit the facility to spend time with the children and babies and help clean the facility. These moments are a healing time for our own souls too.
Also, we assist the resettlement of North Korean refugees moving into this region and link them to various services such as employment, medical care, legal services and education utilizing Rotary’s connections.
SM: What is your plan for your club?
JS: Recently, two new members who are not refugees joined our club. I think it’s a positive sign that we are making great progress. I want our club to become vibrant just like any other club, with diverse members and diverse projects. However, our first priority is to help new refugees moving into our area resettle and to show South Korean people, as well as the world at large, that we North Koreans are also people who love peace and service for others. We, as Rotary members, want to eliminate prejudice and misconceptions about North Korean people, and wish to contribute to the relief of tension between the two Koreas.