Jun Heo’s grandfather was a one-time bodyguard to North Korea’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung. Heo, who grew up in a middle-class family in the coastal province of Kyongsong, hoped to follow in his footsteps, but when his mother tried to defect to the south in 2004, the family fell out of favor. Four years later, he made the journey by himself, smuggled across the Tumen River into neighboring China, and eventually reached his extended family in Shanghai. It was there he used a computer for the first time.
“It was hard for me to get the hang of at first,” Heo says. However, he soon found himself homesick, using Baidu, the Chinese search engine, to look up images of his hometown. When, in 2011, he moved to Seoul to study, like many defectors, he found himself ostracized. His countryside twang gave away his origins to his classmates, and he soon realized that few people in the south knew what life was really like for refugees from the north. After a few lessons from his South Korean girlfriend, who taught him how to use a camera and upload his first videos, he created his first channel, JunStories.
“When I uploaded my first video, I thought you’d only be able to see it in South Korea,” he says. “I didn’t realize I’d be talking to the whole world.”
Today, Heo has more than 20,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel Humans of North Korea. He is one of a growing number of defectors from the north who have turned to vlogging as a way to assimilate into South Korean society. There are now dozens of North Korean YouTubers, whose videos cover North Korean cuisine, dating, and even mukbang, or the art of vlogging while eating.
The response they have received — at times supportive, at others aggressive or patronizing — has highlighted the difficulties of straddling two antagonistic identities, never fully able to inhabit either. Vlogging only goes so far toward resolving their homesickness and sense of otherness in their adopted country. But in sharing their experiences, they hope that they can change southerners’ perceptions of their relatives above the Military Demarcation Line.
“When I first arrived, people used to wear colored glasses. They were prejudiced because they’d never met a North Korean,” Kim Hyeok, a defector who left the north in 2011, told Rest of World. “But I think these YouTubers are helping change this.”
There are only around 30,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea, but the community plays an outsize role in its host country’s identity. At the height of the Cold War, North Korean soldiers and elites who had defected were paraded around Seoul in events, some attended by millions of people, where they testified to the brutal conditions of the north and the superiority of the south.
By the late ’90s, public spectacle had given way to reality television. Defecting soldiers were replaced by refugees fleeing famine and economic devastation. Later, on well-known conservative TV channels, popular shows such as “Now on My Way to Meet You” and “Moranbong Club” featured defectors, usually young, poor, and female, telling the stories of their harrowing escapes.
These caricatures of North Korea and its citizens continue to shape the popular view of defectors in the south. “For many South Koreans, the primary way we meet defectors is through the media,” says Sung Kyung Kim, an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Korean Studies. “We are still living under Cold War ideology.”
It is this skewed perception that Heo is trying to change through his YouTube channel, which has evolved from a personal vlog to a series of vignettes of the lives of defectors modeled on Heo’s favorite Facebook page, the long-running portrait series Humans of New York. The defection videos on Humans of North Korea are different from those on mainstream TV. “They edit 99% of their story and show the 1% that makes people angry about North Korea,” he says. Heo prefers to tell a more nuanced narrative.
His success on YouTube has granted him opportunities out of reach for many North and South Koreans alike. Before the pandemic, he was invited to events sponsored by Google and the consumer electronics company LG. He was even offered opportunities to collaborate with one of South Korea’s premier talent agencies, though he eventually turned that down. Sponsors of his channel have financed trips to other countries, including Germany and France.
However, not all North Korean YouTubers have met with the same welcome online. Sunny Kim started her YouTube channel in 2016 with similar intentions to Heo’s, having experienced nearly a decade of bullying after her defection from the north.
“In middle school, they would tease me and say, ‘Are you a sleeper agent trying to kill the South Korean president?’” she recalls. Her channel amassed 70,000 subscribers in a year, but the real-life harassment followed her onto the platform, where trolls hurled the same slurs at her she had heard as a child in the schoolyard. By the end of the following year, Sunny had shut down her channel. Though she recently resumed vlogging, she no longer talks about North Korea. “Now I just want to document my youth,” she says.
YouTubing has also attracted unwanted attention for Heo. Last fall, late in the evening, he received a call from detectives in Seoul’s police department. They told him that a team from the email provider Naver had alerted them to a cyberattack by hackers that targeted prominent defectors. Heo’s account was among those that had been compromised. The police later identified the hackers as North Korean. After the police walked him through the steps necessary to secure his account, he decided to delete it entirely, losing about six years’ worth of emails.
Even supportive reactions to vloggers’ videos can underline their otherness and highlight how far there is to go for North Koreans to truly integrate.
“He looks just like someone who was born here, amazing!” one commenter wrote on Heo’s page. “I cannot tell whether you’re from the north or south,” another wrote. Heo has mixed feelings about comments like these. “In a way, it’s a compliment,” he says. “But being North Korean is not a curse.”
Heo says he has a responsibility to overcome the perception that it is. He has not shaken off his homesickness, and online, he still finds himself drawn to take trips back to the north. “I miss my hometown,” he says. “I use Google Earth to see if it’s changed, but it hasn’t changed. Not in 10 years.” He hopes that one day he will be able to go back for real, and that his YouTube channel could be a small part of that process — a mini-reunification between South and North Koreans. “I don’t think my channel will destroy these barriers completely, but I want to try,” he says. “Every morning, I wake up and think, Maybe this afternoon we’ll be united. My family still lives there. I miss them.”