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Wary of notice and trying to fit in

Once a month, in an office building with a grimy glass facade on the outskirts of Koreatown, about a dozen Koreans gather over takeout dinners to talk about life and a homeland to which they cannot return.

Their skin is a little darker and they are maybe a little shorter than the average Korean, from having known hunger and hardship more intimately than most. They are wary of strangers and sparing with personal details. As they chat, the accent they suppress in daily life comes out little by little — indistinguishable to foreign ears but a dead giveaway to any Korean speaker.

They are North Koreans who have fled one of the world's last communist strongholds. They make up a small but budding community forming in the shadows of L.A.'s vast Koreatown.

Although recent South Korean immigrants to the U.S. are increasingly wealthy well-educated professionals who come in search of economic opportunities, the few North Koreans are mostly refugees who illegally crossed the border into China with little other than the clothes on their backs. And in L.A., where their southern counterparts have marked their territory with garish neon signs, high-rises and billboards, the North Koreans choose to remain inconspicuous and speak little of where they come from, out of concern for the families they've left behind and the discrimination they can face from fellow Koreans.

"The difficulties in settling down, the culture shock all immigrants go through, North Koreans experience about two, three times as much of it," said Dong Jin Kim, a South Korean-born pastor who serves as director of the Assn. of North Koreans in America, the group that organizes the monthly gatherings. "The Korean community here doesn't really understand them."

In this nascent community, news of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il's death resonated far differently than in the rest of Koreatown. Across dinner tables and over bottles of soju, they worried about what was next for loved ones in North Korea; reminisced about the conditions that drove them to flee; and wondered if his passing meant that they may one day be able to return to a free homeland.

North Koreans in the Southland number in the several dozens, according to immigrant rights organizers. About a third, Kim estimates, are refugees admitted under the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004 — a total of 126 have entered the country since its implementation, according to the State Department. Many others come on a variety of visas from South Korea after having had difficulty adjusting to life there.

Although census figures don't specify how many of the estimated 1 million Korean immigrants in the U.S. are from the North, fewer than 1% listed North Korea as their birth place in the 2000 census, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Their ranks are also difficult to determine because many carry South Korean passports after having first settled there.

Many are of uncertain legal status, with pending asylum petitions that take years to resolve. A number of families have packed up and left — back to South Korea, or to Britain, Canada or Germany.

Those who remain make a living however they can, while trying to blend in among the numerous Korean immigrants who have carved out enclaves from Orange County to the San Fernando Valley.

There is the aging security guard with a stiff edge that hints at his years in the North Korean army. The massage therapist who learned the trade in China but says little of her time there. The grocery clerk who grows tearful at the sight of mothers with daughters but doesn't speak of her own.

One 32-year-old, who now calls herself Julie, found that her English class was full of questions she didn't want to answer: Where are you from? What was your childhood like?

She improvised a made-up answer to each, masking the fact that she was from the North Korean border city of Hoeryong, from which she fled by bribing a border guard and scurrying across a frozen river into China in January. To explain her accent to Korean classmates, she said she was from a rural part of South Korea near the border with the North.

"When people ask questions, it reminds me of the past, things that are painful to remember," said Julie, who asked to be identified only by her chosen name out of fear of safety for her brothers back home.

Among other Koreans and even with fellow defectors, most are careful with personal details out of concern for family in North Korea. If it became known to authorities there that they were in the U.S. — a nation they were taught to think of as an imperialist enemy invader — there is no knowing what punishment would be levied against remaining family members.

So Hanna Choe, 49, once she set foot on U.S. soil, adopted a new name and seldom talked of her husband and daughter. She came to the U.S. as a refugee in 2007 with the help of a pastor she met in China. After a few months in Seattle, where the language barrier felt insurmountable, she headed for L.A.

Once here, she saw an ad for a seamstress at a Korean-run fashion district business. At the interview, she said little but showed them she could sew — she began sewing as a 19-year-old in North Korea.

They told her to begin work the next day but asked her to fill out a resume. She stared at the blank page at a loss, before going to the employer and telling him that in fact, she was from the North. He was initially skeptical, but decided to give her a chance.

"They later told me, apparently they weren't sure if a North Korean could do the job," Choe said.

The women's fashions she was charged with assembling were a wonder: plunging necklines, shirts with just one sleeve and wedding dresses, which she had never seen before. Even more incredible to her was the electricity available around the clock — a luxury unthinkable back home.

Among the South Koreans at work and at church, she quietly practiced saying things with their intonations and their words.

"I have to adapt to the South Korean community. I have no choice but to live among them," she said.

Most others have a harder time adjusting to the capitalist economy. Unlike in South Korea, there are no subsidies or support services to help them settle.

Myung-nam Park vividly remembers landing at Los Angeles International Airport in 2003 with his wife and young son.

"I felt like I was dropped in the middle of the wilderness, in the middle of a desert, by myself," he said.

He got his start driving an unmarked illegal cab in Koreatown. Even though it had been a decade since he left North Korea, his accent still drew quizzical looks. When his cab was seized a couple years later, he made a pittance here and there making kimchi or dumplings and selling them to acquaintances at church.

About a year ago, he was at a basketball court with his son when a Korean pastor chatted him up. Park was suspicious, and when the pastor invited him to his home a few weeks later, he told the man that he wanted to be left alone and hung up.

Eventually, he felt guilty and called the pastor back and told him about his background — how he was trained as a chef in Pyongyang but ran afoul of the law when he was caught listening to South Korean music. The pastor, moved by his story, introduced him to a businessman who invited Park to open a North Korean restaurant at his strip mall in Cerritos.

Three months ago, Park, now 47, opened up Ok Ryu Gwan, where he serves up buckwheat noodles, mung bean pancakes and dumpling soup in the Northern style with less seasoning and clean flavors.

"I lived in the darkness for a long time, but the pastor drew me out," he said.

Still, Park says, it's with other North Koreans that he feels most at ease. They understand the dialect and laugh at the same jokes. They compare stories of going hungry in North Korea — sneaking a drink of milk from a goat in the field, stealing corn kernels that did little to satiate an empty stomach.

Because of a small plot of land her grandparents secretly cultivated in her hometown, Julie's family never went as hungry as others did during North Korea's harsh famine.

She decided to flee in 2004 after her younger sister left one evening and never returned. In her hometown, sitting on the border, it was understood that those who disappeared had crossed over into China. Her mother cried day and night, worried sick. Julie left to find her sister.

Once across, she fled brokers who sell women off to be married and narrowly dodged Chinese police, making her way to South Korea. In Seoul, she entered university, studying real estate with students a decade her junior.

Nine months ago, she decided to take time off and came to the U.S. on a student visa to take English classes. Her classmates are wealthy South Koreans who live lavishly off the money their parents send. They couldn't possibly relate to her journey here.

She dreams of eventually acting as a liaison between a free North Korea and the rest of the world. When that day comes, perhaps she will introduce herself as North Korean without hesitation.

Until then, she figures, some things are better left unsaid.

victoria.kim@latimes.com

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