For young defectors, education is a hurdleMost young North Korean defectors know that starting a new life in South Korea won’t be easy. But they often are not aware that finding a suitable place to continue their schooling can be a part of that struggle.
Ko Sun-young, 21, a defector who is now a South Korean citizen, was cramming for the South Korean high school qualification exam in the winter of 2003 when she met Park Sang-young, a teacher at Ddolbae School, an alternative learning facility for defectors, who urged her to stop going to her hagwon, or private institute.
“The hagwon you are attending now may help you pass the exam, but what’s the point when you will still have a superficial knowledge of the South?” Mr. Park asked her. “Won’t it be better to study more thoroughly and slowly in an environment where you will be understood as you are?”
The young defectors are anxious to become like South Korean students as quickly as possible, and view attending a hagwon as the best way to achieve that goal. But Mr. Park and other activists promote “alternative” schools that purport to give the North Korean students a more substantial understanding of South Korean culture based on a slower approach to integrating into the society.
Ms. Ko and her mother had fled North Korea across the Tumen River in 1998 to go into hiding in China. Her father had been a senior official in the North Korean Army and so she had grown up in a relatively affluent home in Pyeongyang.
Her father’s sudden early retirement changed the situation, however, and the family feared that there was no way to earn a livelihood in North Korea.
She and her family moved around Heilongjiang, in the far northeastern part of China, for four years. Her time there involved washing dishes, selling dumplings and planting rice seedlings.
It had been six years since Ms. Ko had attended her last school, and she wanted to quickly catch up to the students of the South so that she could attend college with them. As far as she knew, attending a hagwon would help her pass the high school qualification exam, which was the fastest way to become like other South Korean students. Thus, she was confused by Mr. Park’s comments.
“I wanted to study, become successful and earn money,” Ms. Ko said. “That’s my dream and that’s what other young North Korean defectors yearn for when they come to Seoul.”
But Ms. Ko said she dared not enter a public high school in Seoul after hearing stories from others who had fled the North before her.
“I would love to attend a normal South Korean high school, but there is no time to spend three years there and I heard that it is hard for us to adjust,” she said. “So most of us register at hagwon instead.”
A Critical View
Mr. Park, however, was critical of that situation.
“These private hagwon push them to gain a South Korean middle school qualification in three months. In another three months they obtain a high school qualification, and in another three, they could be in college,” Mr. Park said. “Kids like it, but that’s nonsense. They are anxious to get everything over with, but in the long run, that’s not going to help them.”
Yet, Mr. Park, who has been working for alternative education programs in churches and government organizations for 12 years, acknowledged that many young North Koreans have reasons similar to Ms. Ko’s for attending hagwon.
“They have spent several years in a third country before entering South Korea. So young defectors are most likely to have given up schooling during that time,” he said. “To make up for the education that they lost, they usually find their way to hagwon in South Korea.”
Soodo Hagwon, a major private institute chain in Seoul, is one such place.
Soodo charges defectors 170,000 won ($164) a month, or half of what South Korean students would normally pay each month for a seven-month course. A Soodo official confirmed that a large number of North Korean students enroll at Soodo branches each time it begins a new academic course.
“We don’t know how many [North Koreans] are in each class,” said the official at the Sinseol-dong branch. “They come and go freely.”
He said Soodo is proud that almost 80 percent of those enrolled pass the qualification exam for a high school diploma. “It is the same with the defectors,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure everyone passes the exam.”
Yoon Sang-seok, a director of Together Korea, an organization that supports educational groups for former North Koreans, believes supplementary classes of any kind are helpful, but he said a system is urgently needed to be a bridge between Hanawon, the mandatory government re-education program for defectors, and ordinary South Korean schools so that young defectors can adjust to society.
“There are after-school programs run by the district offices or religious groups mostly in northeastern Seoul, but that’s not sufficient,” he said.
In an effort to alleviate the situation, the Gyeonggi Education Office recently said it is planning to approve a school in the province to assist North Korean teenagers who resettle in the South.
“We feel the need for such a school, so we are reviewing the matter positively,” said an official from the Gyeonggi Education Office. If the school is approved, its formal opening will take place in March next year.
But Mr. Park said much more needs to be done.
He started his own school in September called Set-Net (Three-Four) School in Daehangno, northern Seoul. It took a long time for him to persuade about 17 students attending hagwon ― and those not attending any school at all ― to come to his facility.
The name Set-Net reflects the type of educational program Mr. Park is pursuing. He and other activists thought up the name after hearing that the Unification Ministry’s short-term official program for young defectors inside Hanawon is called Hana-Dul (One-Two) School.
Set-Net is run by volunteer teachers and activists. They charge each student 20,000 won ($19) a month for five days of lessons, field trips and lunches.
“I want students like Ko Sun-young to come to Set-Net School and learn the atmosphere and culture of South Korea as well as study for college,” Mr. Park said.
About a year has passed since Ms. Ko began attending Mr. Park’s schools. During the year, she achieved her high school qualification and was accepted at Sogang University in Seoul, where she will be a freshman studying business administration this spring.
“My parents are very happy for me. This was just what I dreamed of,” Ms. Ko said.
Um Jeong-min, a volunteer English teacher at Set-Net, says the students are very enthusiastic about learning.
“Unlike the reports in the media that these kids are usually troublemakers, they are actually very bright and hard-working,” she said. “I am worried that my kids will be hurt and lose confidence every time they see such reports.”
But Mr. Park said that it was a slow process in making the students as bright and enthusiastic as they are now.
“They went through some of the hardest, scariest moments in their lives while they were fleeing,” Mr. Park said. “They were hurt, and some have been victims of fraud when they were in a third country and even when they arrived in Seoul. It took time for them to know that the world is not so evil.”
Choi Geum-hui, 21, who has been a South Korean citizen for four years, studied at Set-Net with Ms. Ko. She made it to Hankuk University of Foreign Studies as a Chinese language major.
She said her dream is to become a Chinese-Korean interpreter and “earn lots of money so that [she could] repay Mr. Park and [her] parents” for supporting her.
She said the instructors at her hagwon were very authoritarian and strict. “Even though I had questions, I couldn’t ask because there were too many other students that the teachers had to deal with,” she said. “When they used South Korean slang and English terms, I couldn’t quite understand. So I am glad I decided to come to Set-Net.”
Students Still Encounter Problems
Regardless of the opportunities available to them, however, many young North Koreans are still having difficulties in adusting to educational life in the South.
According to a recent study by the Korean Educational Development Institute and the Justice Ministry, the number of North Koreans from ages six to 20 in South Korea was 801 as of September.
Out of 223 children old enough to enroll in elementary schools, 191 students, or 86 percent, were attending schools. But the percentage dropped to 49 percent for those who should be going to middle school, and fell to 7 percent, or 27 students out of the 411 who should be in high school.
The report showed that 30 percent of those who were not attending a school in South Korea responded that it was because school lessons were too difficult to follow. Over 36 percent said they didn’t want to hear South Korean students making fun of them while others said they were having a hard time making any friends at all.
“It’s not only the cultural and ideological differences but the education gap between the students of the South and the North that we have to be patient to understand,” said Sung Sun-hee, director of Hanawon.
Kim Ha-nul, 19, another former North Korean, is waiting eagerly for college to start in March. She has been accepted at Sungkyunkwan University. But her life was not easy before she received her acceptance letter.
Ms. Kim, who was born and raised in North Hamgyeong province, the northernmost region of North Korea, said she had to “study and work like crazy at the same time” when she first came to the South in 2003.
She said her day started at 5 a.m. She studied for college entrance exams until 9 a.m., then took piano lessons. At noon, she headed to an English hagwon. In the late afternoon, she went to work at a Japanese restaurant, waiting on tables. She did not return home until midnight, or even later.
“When I missed the subway at night, I had to take a taxi home,” she said. “I hated myself then for throwing out hard-earned money like that.”
She said the adjustment was very hard since she did not have many friends to talk to, and particularly when her piano teacher, whom she had trusted, tried to trick her into buying a used violin for the price of a new one.
“I was shocked that such a nice lady could do that to me,” she said. “But I was much better off than others.” She declined to say what experiences others might have gone through that were “much worse than hers.”
“Frankly, it is humiliating to hear that people from my hometown are being treated that way,” she said. “Some church people would offer us food and say, ‘You’ve never tasted such food before in your life, have you?’ I don’t think that is being very nice.”
Ms. Kim, whose dream is to become a flight attendant, said she is slowly forgetting about the times she was angry and sad, as she imagines what her college life will be like.
“I want to make many, many friends when I go to college. I want to be involved in lots of campus activities,” she said.
by Lee Min-a