Defectors learn the South’s waysEvery year, thousands of North Koreans cross the border into China, with many hoping to come to South Korea. But whether they transit through China or a third country, all defectors to the South end up at a facility in the middle of a farming area in Anseong, Gyeonggi province.
No telephone number or Web site is registered for this site, nor does it appear on any map. The complex of red brick buildings is a national security facility, guarded by armed police.
It is Hanawon, where North Korean defectors are “reeducated” before they are released into civilian life.
Hanawon is run by the Unification Ministry. Defectors undergo three months of intensive training there to adjust to a new life in the capitalist South. Since the facility opened in August 1998, about 5,000 North Korean defectors have spent time there.
“The purpose of the reeducation is to reduce trial and error as much as possible by exposing the defectors to different aspects of South Korea, ranging from capitalism to culture,” said Bae Chung-nam, the facility’s deputy director.
A typical day for the defectors involves instruction from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The program includes language lessons on the pronunciation and foreign words that South Koreans use, an introduction to jobs available in South Korea and job training, and tips on everyday activities such as opening a bank account and making a purchase.
The program begins with perhaps the most important aspect of all, group therapy.
“A number of defectors had traumatic experiences, since they lived for years as refugees after they escaped from North Korea,” Mr. Bae said.
The defectors discuss their painful experiences and come to view them from a more objective standpoint, Mr. Bae said. Psychiatrists are brought in for more intensive therapy, if necessary.
Aside from the therapy sessions, Hanawon focuses on career counseling and occupational training, devoting nearly one-fourth of the program to the topic, because of difficulties defectors have in finding employment. According to a survey of 248 defectors by the Unification Ministry, 69 percent were employed in North Korea, but only 32 percent of them have jobs here.
The training starts with an introduction to the hundreds of jobs available in the South. The defectors are given information on wages and qualifications for certain occupations and they then discuss the type of job they would like to have and the prospects for getting it. They are given a chance to evaluate themselves, so that they can make a rational decision.
Choosing a career
“We neither recommend an occupation nor press them to select one, but we teach them to consider different aspects of different careers,” said Kim Im-tae, an instructor at Hanawon.
The defectors are also shown different resumes and asked to choose the person they would hire if they were an employer, based on the qualifications listed on the resumes.
Some defectors opt for the occupation they used to have in the North, or believe that they can have any career they want in the South, such as clergyman, professor, teacher or even doctor. Some choose jobs that no longer exist in the South, such as bus attendant or telephone switchboard operator. A majority say they want to become construction equipment operators, auto repairmen, taxi drivers, security guards or nurses because these are popular jobs in North Korea, Mr. Kim said.
“After three months in Hanawon, the defectors become more realistic and lower their expectations,” he added.
“The instructors told us to start from the very bottom,” said Kim Young-ae, a defector who used to work at a nursery school in the North and came to the South in March 2003. Ms. Kim, who requested that her real surname not be used, said she realized that she could not work in a nursery school anymore after she was rejected by some facilities.
“We were told that life outside Hanawon is going to be harsh,” Ms. Kim said.
The instructors also warn defectors to avoid certain types of jobs. “The instructors told us not to sign up as a multilevel marketer,” Ms. Kim said. “But defectors don’t know much about the situation here and are easily attracted by sweet talk about making easy money.”
Despite the effort, many defectors end up in the “difficult, dangerous and dirty” occupations, which Mr. Kim said is perhaps unavoidable. As a result, there has been criticism that the training in Hanawon is almost useless.
While acknowledging that the program is too short and incomplete, Mr. Bae said, “In only three months, turning the defectors into completely different persons by Spartan-style training is just not feasible. Instead, what we do here is to help them understand the cultural differences between the two Koreas.”
“There is a big difference between developing an idea of what they might do by the time they leave Hanawon and stepping into South Korean society without any idea,” Mr. Kim said.
He added that the defectors have less anxiety about their work prospects after completing their stay.
Because of the fatigue and tension they suffered after they left North Korea, the defectors find it hard to concentrate on lectures when they arrive at Hanawon. Some distrust South Korean lecturers or simply do not comprehend the instructions they are given. One solution was to have defectors who had already settled here lecture to the new arrivals.
“I did not trust South Koreans, but we were keen to listen to speeches by other defectors,” said Lee Seong-cheol, a defector who arrived in the South in March 2003. Now, Mr. Lee, who works at a factory in Gwangmyeong, Gyeonggi province, returns to Hanawon once a month to give a lecture himself.
Although job counseling and training may be the most important assistance given to the defectors, sometimes the bigger problems they face stem from the small things in everyday life, since they lack the common knowledge that South Koreans have attained over their lifetimes.
Recalling an incident at Hanawon, Mr. Kim said a defector kept containers of milk in his room, not knowing they have an expiration date. When the defector was told that the milk was not drinkable, he began to check the expiration dates, Mr. Kim said.
To help them get used to things that are considered very routine to South Koreans, the defectors are taken to nearby markets and given an opportunity to buy clothes. They also have an opportunity to visit state-run employment centers and fill out an application form or sign a contract to rent an apartment.
“Generally, the defectors like field trips,” Mr. Kim said.
Some defectors have an opportunity for a home stay, and are placed in middle-class households so that they can get a general idea of what life is like in the South.
One of the biggest obstacles in reeducating the defectors is the language difference. Because of the many foreign words and unfamilar terms used by South Koreans, the defectors have a hard time understanding the instructions. Thus, instructors try to explain things in the plainest terms.
South Koreans use the word “elevator,” for example, while North Koreans use seungganggi, which also means elevator in the South but is hardly used. The program allots 20 hours for lessons on foreign terms used by South Koreans, and the lessons are very popular, Mr. Kim said.
North Korean pronunciation also differs from that in the South, with the disparity becoming greater the farther north one goes. Because of such differences, South Korean comedians often imitate and ridicule North Korean accents on television.
“When the defectors went to a company for job training, South Koreans burst out laughing when the defectors spoke or asked questions. Then the defectors became reluctant to ask questions,” Mr. Kim said. Instruction in fine-tuning speech to make it closer to that in the South is provided.
After years of suffering and because of rumors they have heard about other defectors who settled in the South, many defectors often have unrealistic expectations of the government. Some believe that when their one-time resettlement allowance runs out ― an unmarried defector receives 10 million won ($9,600) ― they will be given more, Mr. Bae said, although that is not the case.
“A defector asked why the government doesn’t pay for living costs if it pays for school tuition,” Mr. Kim said.
“We compare defectors who make a living on their own and those who live on welfare and explain the differences in social status they have,” Mr. Kim said. “Then, they get a sense of what they should do.”
After they leave Hanawon, the defectors are assigned to different cities.
They generally feel positive about their life at the center and what they learned there. “We were fed well and provided with clothes,” Ms. Kim said. “I was envious of nothing. I had no worries.”
“In the beginning, I could not wait to get out of Hanawon, but when I think of it now, it was a short time,” Mr. Lee said. “Everything they taught us was right.”
Mr. Lee once took boxes of food and beverages to the facility as gifts to show his appreciation to the center’s officials.
“While we were in Hanawon, I could not understand what they were trying to teach us,” Ms. Kim said. “It was not until we left Hanawon that things started to make sense.”
Their stay at the facility seems to bring a notable change among the defectors.
“The defectors start to unwind and open up,” Mr. Bae said. “When they first arrive here, their eyes have a look of fear, but then later they come to understand what South Korea is like.”
“I realized in Hanawon that I can learn anything and the way I lead my life depends on my ability,” Ms. Kim said.
Even after they leave, some defectors still contact Hanawon officials, and many of them want to talk about their hardships.
The hurdle the defectors most struggle with is prejudice against them, Mr. Kim said. “The defectors say they neither want the pity of South Koreans nor their disregard,” he said. “They just want to be treated equally.”
“The defectors are not responsible for problems related to the mass immigration of defectors, these are structural problems of the Korean peninsula,” Mr. Bae said.
“These are nevertheless obligations the Korean people need to accept. The social integration of North and South Korea following unification in the future depends on how well we embrace them, with warm hearts,” he added.
by Limb Jae-un