They fled the hardships of North Korea, and now make a living singing and dancing about the country they left behind.
The members of the Arirang Performance Group, made up of escapees who now live in South Korea, say their performances at local festivals and unification-related events evoke conflicted feelings of nostalgia, sadness and freedom.
They escaped a hopeless situation in the North, but life in the South has not been easy, either. They had a hard time learning the ways of capitalism and bridging the social and cultural gap with South Koreans.
“We came to South Korea and made a living the best that we could, despite prejudice and financial struggles,” said Lee Eun-ah, who founded the group 15 years ago. “While I used to perform in North Korea, it was always political, so things are different here.”
Another member of the troupe, Lee Ye-rin, said that she longs to return to North Korea to prepare a proper meal for her parents.
“I miss my mother and father very much, and I feel so bad that only I am able to live and eat well here,” she said. “I want to see my parents and my younger siblings, but they don’t even appear to me in dreams anymore.”
The women, fearing reprisals against family still in the North, have been assigned pseudonyms to protect their identities.
Their lives, both on stage and behind the curtains, are captured by South Korean photographer Lee Dong-geun in his recently published book, "In the Spotlight: Arirang Performance Group."
The photos, which span more than a decade, show the performers in colorful traditional clothing, smiling in front of audiences in the South.
Dancing and singing in brightly colored costumes, the group is usually invited to give performances that last 20 minutes to an hour involving anywhere from two to seven people.
Lee says his aim is to tell the stories of North Korean escapees who, despite being of the same ethnicity, are alienated from society in the South and live as if they are “standing on the border.”
“In English, [the Arirang Performance Group] is ‘in the spotlight’ or ‘under the lights,’” he said. “No one in our society is paying attention to North Korean defectors, but when they go on stage, they become seen – they become the main characters under the light. And they are the main characters in this book.”
Lee Dong-geun began documenting the women’s stories in 2010, he said, due to his keen interest in people with identities on the fringes of South Korean society.
The group’s kitschy aesthetic may appear “cheesy,” but has its own charm.
“If you look at the pictures, it’s a little funny, old-fashioned and tacky,” Lee said. “These things seem to stimulate our ‘B-grade sensibility.’ The background of these people is very different from ours.”
Lee said a chance meeting allowed him to get closer to the Arirang performers to learn their stories.
“I happened to meet an old elementary school classmate who is a singer,” the photographer said. “He was going to a small festival to sing and serve as the event’s host. I went with my friend and there were these North Koreans next to him.”
Lee got to know the performers and began to accompany them to events to capture their lives on film.
“You develop sympathy with your subjects and become friends,” he said of the decade he spent with the Arirang group. “At some point, you are able to photograph them as if they were colleagues.”
While many of the photos show the women smiling, each has a painful story.
The group’s founder, Lee Eun-ah, came to South Korea after facing a dilemma.
Her father was a Chinese businessman who visited North Korea in the 1970s, but was unable to return home due to a border closure prompted by a diplomatic spat between Beijing and Pyongyang. Her mother took her to the North as a young child to search for her father and, while the family was reunited, they were not permitted to leave.
Lee eventually married a man who became a police officer, but could not be promoted because he had wedded a former Chinese national.
“I was at a crossroads at that point – I either needed to divorce my husband or he needed to quit his job,” she said. “I chose divorce under the condition of bringing my kids. That’s why I decided to defect.”
She said she crossed the Yalu River into China with her children at a section she was familiar with, describing her escape as “not very difficult” and that she was able to do so without a broker.
She took a ferry to South Korea from Dandong, China, which she was able to do using a Chinese passport that she received as the child of Chinese nationals, and now plays the accordion, dances, and sings as the group’s hostess.
Her parents and younger brother now live in South Korea, but her older brother and sister remain in North Korea.
The photographer Lee acknowledged that some of his subjects were reluctant to have their lives documented because they feared repercussions for themselves or their loved ones back home.
“It was a little uncomfortable and difficult at first, but … as I shared and sympathized with them about what they’ve been through, everyone opened up,” he said.
Lee Ye-rin escaped from North Korea in 1997 and wandered through China for six years before she settled in the South and joined the Arirang Performance Group.
Originally from Onsong, a town in North Hamgyong province near the Tumen River, Lee became the head of her family after her mother fell ill. A broker convinced her that she could make a lot of money to pay for her mother’s medicine if she found work across the border in China.
“I thought I could endure hardships for three months – whether it was working at a Chinese restaurant or logging in the mountains,” she said. “I blindly followed the broker, but that was the road to human trafficking.”
She was sold for 8,000 Chinese yuan, or about US$1,000, as a wife to a Chinese man who drank and beat her nearly every day.
“I cried a lot, thinking, ‘I didn’t come here to live like this, I didn’t come here to meet this kind of person,’ but it was too late,” she said. “Living there for two-and-a-half years was the toughest time of my life.”
Lee said she escaped on a winter day in 2000, fighting through waist-deep snow drifts, until she finally made her way to the port city of Qingdao. From there, she traveled to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, before boarding a plane to South Korea, where she now lives with her daughter.
After searching for news of her family members, who she hoped to bring to the South with the help of a broker, she learned that her mother and one of her siblings had died, while her father and another sibling had gone missing while trying to cross the Tumen river to China more than 10 years ago.
“There has been no news so I won’t change my phone number, just in case,” she said.
Lee Eun-ah and Lee Ye-rin recently traveled with the photographer to Yanbian, China, and visited the Tumen River on the border with North Korea. The sight of their homeland beyond the snow-covered river brought back dormant memories and emotions, they told RFA.
“When I went to the Tumen River [in 2015], it was winter. So, the water was all gone, and it was a distance that I could cross if I wanted to,” said Lee Eun-ah. “But I couldn’t cross then because if I did, there was no way I could ever come back.”
She said that seeing her hometown across the river brought her many mixed emotions.
“I want to go [home], but I’m in a situation where I can’t. I stared at my hometown for a long time,” she said.
Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee
Photos by Yang Zilei
Edited by Eugene Whong, Joshua Lipes, Malcolm Foster.
Visual editing by H. Léo Kim, Paul Nelson
Web page produced by Minh-Ha Le
Produced by Radio Free Asia
© 2023 RFA
Facebook - Youtube - Twitter