70% of the nearly 30,000 North Korean refugees who have made it to South Korea are women. Kyoung-ok arrived in Seoul as a 13 year old in 2009 after escaping North Korea, hiding in a cave in China as authorities rounded North Korean refugees up to send them home during the 2008 Olympic Games, and being smuggled through Vietnam and Cambodia. When asked to describe herself, Kyoung-ok said "I am a tiger. I like to think I can adapt to anything, and that maybe I can be a bit scary too." / The tiger has been a symbol in Korean culture for centuries—in traditional art, it is portrayed as the entire peninsula. Not the DPRK and the ROK, but Korea. This project was made possible with the support of the IU School of Journalism's Ross Hazeltine Scholarship.----Kyong-ok is exhausted as she rides the bus home from school at 7:30 p.m. on March 4, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea. Students in South Korea often have late school nights, with many studying for up to 16 hours a day. The competitive college preparation environment is overwhelming for Kyong-ok. Instead of looking forward to applying to a university, she attends extra classes for hair and nail design in hopes of working in the beauty field and earning money immediately.Caitlin O'Hara
North Korean refugee Kim Kyoung-ok arrived in Seoul as a 13 year old in 2009. Here, she rides the bus home from school at 7:30 p.m. on March 4, 2015, in Seoul.Caitlin O'Hara
70% of the nearly 30,000 North Korean refugees who have made it to South Korea are women. Kyoung-ok arrived in Seoul as a 13 year old in 2009 after escaping North Korea, hiding in a cave in China as authorities rounded North Korean refugees up to send them home during the 2008 Olympic Games, and being smuggled through Vietnam and Cambodia. When asked to describe herself, Kyoung-ok said "I am a tiger. I like to think I can adapt to anything, and that maybe I can be a bit scary too." / The tiger has been a symbol in Korean culture for centuries—in traditional art, it is portrayed as the entire peninsula. Not the DPRK and the ROK, but Korea. This project was made possible with the support of the IU School of Journalism's Ross Hazeltine Scholarship.----Kyong-ok is exhausted as she rides the bus home from school at 7:30 p.m. on March 4, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea. Students in South Korea often have late school nights, with many studying for up to 16 hours a day. The competitive college preparation environment is overwhelming for Kyong-ok. Instead of looking forward to applying to a university, she attends extra classes for hair and nail design in hopes of working in the beauty field and earning money immediately.Caitlin O'Hara
Kyong-ok shows photographs she brought with her on the 10-month journey from North Korea through China, Vietnam and Cambodia on Feb. 1, 2015 in a room cafe in Mia, Seoul, South Korea. They show two of her three sisters, her grandfather in full DPRK military regalia, herself as a child in a North Korean elementary school, among other scenes. For contrast, she also shows glamour shots taken in South Korea. Other than a backpack full of food and a few clothes, these pictures were all that she and her mother brought with them when they left the DPRK. Before they left, one of Kyong-ok's older sisters made her a doll from old clothes, but she wasn't able to bring it with her to make room for more food. Caitlin O'Hara
Donning matching shoes, North Korean refugees Kim Kyong-ok, 19 (Lunar age), and Sarah (English name used in order to protect source), 22, walk arm-in-arm on their way to a Christian church service on Feb. 21, 2015 near Hapjeong, Seoul, South Korea. The women met shortly after they each arrived separately in South Korea at a resettlement camp for refugees. While adjusting to life after North Korea has been challenging, their friendship is a source of strength and solidarity. Caitlin O'Hara
Kyong-ok and Sarah spend time on their phones after sharing takeout for dinner at Kyong-ok's apartment on Feb. 28, 2015 in Mia, Seoul, South Korea. Caitlin O'Hara
Kyoung-ok receives news that a close friend and fellow young North Korean refugee is pregnant on March 10, 2015 in her apartment in Mia, Seoul, South Korea. Abortion is illegal and single motherhood is highly stigmatized in South Korean culture. It can be a cause to lose a job or support from one's family and support system. The friend, who chose not to be identified for her safety, struggles with her mental health and has had a difficult time adjusting to life in South Korea. Caitlin O'Hara
Kyoung-ok and Sarah spend time at a norebang (singing room) on Feb. 4, 2015 near Yangjae, Seoul, South Korea. When Kyong-ok first arrived in the South, it was difficult to make friends. Her fifth-grade classmates were suspicious of her, asking her whether she was a communist or a spy. South Koreans believe that North Koreans are confrontational, violent and untrustworthy. In order to make friends, Kyong-ok went to her neighborhood norebang and knocked on the doors of rooms with fellow kids, making friends boldy and quickly. Her mother is a music teacher in Changwon, South Korea (and was, too, in North Korea), and she has a confident, strong singing voice. Caitlin O'Hara
Kyoung-ok smokes on her balcony on Feb. 28, 2015 in Mia, Seoul, South Korea. Now in her third year of high school, she began smoking almost immediately after she arrived in South Korea when she was 13. Feeling alienated as a refugee, she wanted to fit in with her 5th-grade classmates who smoked. Smoking is common among South Korean students due to competitiveness and stress due to long school days and high performance expectations. Students in South Korea often go to school for twelve hours a day.Caitlin O'Hara
Kyoung-ok looks at herself after her aunt cuts and styles her hair in her salon in Seoul, South Korea. She is training to be a hair and nail designer and helps her aunt out when she can. In North Korea, there is little room for self-expression in hair styles, where acceptable styles are sanctioned, but Seoul has quickly become a beauty and style world-capital.Caitlin O'Hara
Kyoung-ok plays pool with Christian King of Liberia, left, and Jerry Alexander of Canada, right, at Club Zion, a Jamaican bar, on March 19 in Itaewon, Seoul, South Korea. After not meeting many foreigners as a child, Kyong-ok loves to visit Itaewon, which is a foreigner-heavy neighborhood close to the United States Army Garrison, to meet people from different places and try foreign food ("But it's so sweet and salty with no spicy flavor"). She especially loves spaghetti, gyros and American breakfast.Caitlin O'Hara
Kyong-ok zips up Sarah's jacket, which she borrowed from her brother, during a night out Feb. 4, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea. The community of North Korean refugees is growing smaller and more tight knit with the help of social networks and human rights groups. Caitlin O'Hara
North Korean refugee Kim Kyoung-ok arrived in Seoul as a 13 year old in 2009. Here, she rides the bus home from school a
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Caitlin O'Hara
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Inside the Lives of Two Young North Korean Defectors

May 24, 2016

Kim Kyoung-ok still remembers chasing after the flyer balloons, alien care packages raining from the sky filled with Korean noodles and letters from children like her. She did not know yet that there could be a better life than the one she was born to in North Korea: an existence dictated by a depressed economy and a draconian political system. But as the years passed, her mother, Kim Tae-hee, had experienced a comparatively better quality of life in China where she was one of the approximately 50,000-60,000 North Koreans permitted to work abroad—an opportunity granted to citizens considered loyal to the regime.

Kyoung-ok was only 12 when her mother decided to make a dream of a better life a reality, fleeing with her youngest daughter to China. Now 21, Kyoung-ok detailed the treacherous journey of defecting from North Korea and re-settling in South Korea to photographer Caitlin O’Hara, who documented her life in Seoul last year.

It was 2007 and Beijing was preparing for the 2008 Olympic Games. Kyoung-ok told O’Hara that the crackdown on North Korean defectors had intensified ahead of the games, with China repatriating those suspected of attempting an escape to South Korea.

"There were such inhumane conditions [in China] that my mother decided we should leave for South Korea," Kyoung-ok told O'Hara.

She and her mother were forced into hiding, living in Chinese caves before traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia with the assistance of a paid broker. The pair sought asylum at a Cambodian Christian church before arriving in South Korea in 2008.

Kyoung-ok is among a community of at least 27,000 North Korean refugees living in South Korea. And while border control has been tightened since Kim Jong-un came to power, hundreds of North Koreans continue to risk their lives by defecting, reportedly to escape their country’s poverty and stringent political system.

Kyoung-ok has adjusted well to her life in the South, O’Hara says, and has developed a close friendship with Sarah, a fellow refugee she met at resettlement camp and who asked not to share her last name. “Their bond was special,” O’Hara says, also recounting her own relationship formed with the young women during her several-months stay in the country. “In South Korean language, you address older people by older family members' titles. So, when they started calling me Older Sister, that was really wonderful.”

O’Hara grew close to her subject, watching movies during sleepovers and sharing stories about life in Midwest America. “Sometimes they were Korean movies or American movies and it was fun. We shared parts of our culture.” They would meet halfway in communication, fusing O’Hara’s bit of Korean and Kyoung-ok’s English with phones as a stopgap.

The relationships built in her new home have proven vital to Kyoung-ok, who has lived on her own in Seoul to attend school since age 13, while her mother, a music teacher, worked in the southern part of the country. “Sarah and Kyoung-ok rely on each other a lot, just as many in the refugee community do because they could relate to each other about their homes and the things that they have to go through in Seoul,” O’Hara says.

Kyoung-ok also shares a similar bond with her boyfriend, an adopted Jamaican-American man who studies in South Korea, as they learn to navigate a new world together. She beams to O’Hara that she believes she may be the first North Korean woman to date an American boy.

“I am just inspired by her bravery, she's a phenomenal person,” says O’Hara, who hopes to continue telling this story, which was made possible with the support of the IU School of Journalism's Ross Hazeltine Scholarship last year.

Still, people like Kyoung-ok and Sarah live somewhat cautiously in their new home. “There are still agents in South Korea from North Korea who try to locate people who have defected," says O'Hara.

Others, like Kyoung-ok’s older sister who disappeared in 2004 while in China with a friend, have not made the journey so successfully. The friend was confirmed executed. A United Nations Commission of Inquiry investigation in 2013 reported punishments ranging from imprisonment and execution to various forms of torture including starvation upon China’s forcible return of the refugees, or repatriation, reports the Brooking Institute.

O’Hara, for one, would like to see attention focused on the people themselves, to dispel “misconceptions that all North Koreans are either brainwashed or very aggressive people. That's not been the case of all of the wonderful people that I've met.”

Caitlin O’Hara is a freelance documentary photography based in Phoenix. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @Caitlin_OH

Jun Michael Park, who translated interviews for O'Hara, is a visual storyteller based in Seoul. Follow him on Instagram @junmichaelpark

Chelsea Matiash is TIME’s deputy multimedia editor. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @cmatiash.

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