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This woman left North Korea 70 years ago. Now virtual reality has helped her return

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Hyun Mi was 13 years outdated when she fled Pyongyang along with her mother and father and 5 siblings to flee preventing on the Korean Peninsula. Chinese language troops have been approaching the North Korean capital and her household deliberate to cover additional south till they handed.

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“I assumed it will be every week, however that week grew to become 70 years,” mentioned Hyun, now 83.

However now, for the primary time because the household fled, Hyun has been in a position to go to her childhood residence — or no less than a model of it — utilizing digital actuality expertise.

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Within the absence of real-life household reunions, the South Korean authorities is hoping a brand new digital actuality undertaking will present some consolation to growing older North Korean refugees who worry that point is operating out.

Fleeing North Korea

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1000’s of individuals like Hyun fled North Korea throughout the Korean Warfare within the Nineteen Fifties, throughout the border into China and Russia. Many ended up in South Korea.

Picture released on December 26, 1950 of Korean civilians escorted by a military police jeep, fleeing to the South Korea. The picture was taken during the Korean War between North and South Korea.

Image launched on December 26, 1950 of Korean civilians escorted by a army police jeep, fleeing to the South Korea. The image was taken throughout the Korean Warfare between North and South Korea. Credit score: AFP/Getty Photographs

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Hyun mentioned many North Korean girls stayed behind to protect their homes whereas males and their youngsters fled, afraid that they might be killed by Chinese language troopers, who have been thought of much less prone to kill a lady.

Her household left her two youthful sisters, aged 6 and 9, within the care of their grandmother.

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They deliberate to return again when the preventing eased, however after battle ended with an armistice in 1953, North and South Korea erected an virtually impenetrable border between the international locations, stopping anybody from crossing both aspect.

Many households like Hyun’s grew to become separated from the locations they knew and the individuals they beloved.

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Within the many years since, North Korea has turn into more and more remoted from the world, led by a dynasty of dictators that desires the reunification of the Koreas however beneath its personal phrases.

Unlocated picture taken January 18, 1951, shows Korean refugees passing frozen rice fields as they fled to the south.

Unlocated image taken January 18, 1951, reveals Korean refugees passing frozen rice fields as they fled to the south. Credit score: AFP/Getty Photographs

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Whereas the 2 international locations have allowed choose households to reunite for temporary and emotional conferences, most households that have been separated throughout the battle have by no means been in a position to see their family members.

Conferences are carried out by a lottery system based mostly on age and the power of household ties. Reunions have been canceled previously when relations between the 2 international locations have deteriorated. The final conferences passed off in 2018, when 89 households from South Korea have been in a position to meet with their North Korean relations. Many who took half have been of their 90s.

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Reminders of the previous

The anguish of separated households prompted South Korea’s Ministry of Unification to ask the nation’s Purple Cross to create a undertaking to attach them with their hometowns.

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The Purple Cross labored with Ahn Hyo-jin, the chief govt of Seoul-based VR firm Tekton Area, to create VR experiences for North Korean refugees.

“There are numerous displaced individuals in Korea and all of them are longing to go to their hometown however can not as a result of circumstances,” Ahn mentioned.

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Hyun — a widely known singer in South Korea whose hits embody a Sixties music about being separated from family members — was the primary North Korean refugee to take a digital tour of her homeland.

A 3D artist's sketch of Pyongyang based on Hyun Mi's memories.

A 3D artist’s sketch of Pyongyang based mostly on Hyun Mi’s reminiscences. Credit score: Courtesy Ministry of Unification

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It wasn’t simple to recreate locations in reclusive North Korea, Ahn mentioned.

His firm interviewed Hyun, asking her to recall vivid moments from her childhood. As she spoke, a designer sketched what she described, checking periodically to see if the drawing matched her reminiscences. These sketches have been then was 3D designs.

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“It was very daunting after we started,” mentioned 3D designer Moun Jong-sik. “What if the factor that I made doesn’t resemble her reminiscences?”

However when Hyun placed on the VR headset in September this 12 months, she discovered she could not cease crying.

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“I made it to North Korea!” Hyun exclaimed.

A virtual reality recreation of the market in Pyongyang, North Korea, where Hyun Mi spent her childhood.

A digital actuality recreation of the market in Pyongyang, North Korea, the place Hyun Mi spent her childhood. Credit score: Courtesy Ministry of Unification

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The recreation of Pyongyang wasn’t precisely the identical as she remembered, she mentioned, nevertheless it was shut. As Hyun surveyed a snow-covered recreation of the home the place she grew up, she mentioned she stored desirous about her mother and father, now lengthy useless.

“The faces of my mom, father, sisters and brothers flashed earlier than me,” she mentioned.

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Hyun remembered how crowded their home was with eight siblings across the dinner desk, and sneaking into her dad’s retailer to eat squid with out him understanding. She noticed a seafood market in Pyongyang the place she used to play soar rope, and Taedong River, the place she used to swim as a baby.

Hyun nonetheless lives with the ache of forsaking two of her sisters. She briefly united with one in every of them in China 20 years in the past, a gathering made attainable by a dealer with enterprise ties in North Korea. Their assembly was filmed by a documentary crew and later televised. Her sister was simply 6 years outdated when she left, and would stay a a lot harder life.

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“If solely I got here with you, I might have been a star singer similar to you,” Hyun recalled her sister saying on the reunion.

A recreation of Hyun Mi's house in Pyongyang.

A recreation of Hyun Mi’s home in Pyongyang. Credit score: Courtesy Ministry of Unification

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“She was virtually 60 however she nonetheless appeared the identical. I noticed how she misplaced all her hair, all her enamel and toenails, too,” Hyun added.

Within the Nineteen Nineties — across the time Hyun met along with her sister — North Korea was hit by a famine that led to an estimated 600,000 deaths, although earlier estimates put the determine a lot increased.

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“Even right this moment after I go to a buffet restaurant, I cry, as a result of there’s such an abundance of meals,” she mentioned. “It pains me tremendously to see any meals thrown out as a result of it makes me consider my sisters within the North.”

Future plans for refugees

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Though there isn’t a official depend on the variety of North Korean refugees in South Korea, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification mentioned in its newest statistics launched final month that, since 1988, 133,000 individuals have formally registered to satisfy their household within the north. However the possibilities of these reunions are dwindling because the refugees develop outdated. As of November, there are 49,700 refugees of these registered nonetheless alive in South Korea.

Ahn hopes Hyun’s expertise is barely the beginning.

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The nation’s unification ministry has proven curiosity in increasing the undertaking subsequent 12 months to mannequin different areas the place refugees have beforehand lived, says Ahn. A ministry official mentioned it’s presently contemplating a plan, though they don’t have any timeline but. However, creating bespoke initiatives for each refugee is not going to be attainable, he added.

Ahn’s firm has interviewed quite a few displaced individuals who, like Hyun, want they might go to their hometown. In addition they want to see their household, however the VR expertise can not help with that — the expertise would not embody individuals.

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Hyun mentioned whereas the digital actuality undertaking gave her some consolation, what she actually needs is the liberty to see her relations in actual life.

“I do not need so much — I do not even need unification. I’d simply recognize if we will go to one another,” she mentioned.

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