Defecting is easy...English is hard.
“What’s your name?” asks one to the other.
“My name is Cassandra,” the woman replies. “Where are you from?”
So far, so very normal. But then the kicker: “I’m from North Korea. Where are you from?”
“I’m from North Korea,” Cassandra says.
In fact, all the students at Jayoutuh School ― jayoutuh means “free area” ― hail from north of the Demilitarized Zone. Situated in southern Seoul, the school has been offering free English and Chinese lessons to defectors since February 2003.
To look at its gleaming white walls and its bright, clean interior, one might get the impression that the school has no problems with funding. But Cho Myung-sook, the school’s founder and principal, says that because the government tends to channel funds toward its own schools, Jayoutoh has to rely on donations from churches, individuals and a dollop from corporations.
Although Christian in orientation, the school administration says it does not force religion on anyone, and that some non-Christians attend. In addition to the classes, Jayoutuh aims to provide a general support network, including offering its students help with the often daunting task of adjusting to life in the South, as well as organizing a number of social events.
Opinions are somewhat mixed among the school’s staff members as to what distinguishes North Korean students from their southern brethren. Janice Jung, the school’s vice principal, believes that the hardships the students have endured often result in symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, including a diminished ability to concentrate.
She adds that with North Koreans, no amount of background knowledge can be taken for granted.
“We have a teacher from Scotland, and when she first introduced herself to her students, she had to give an hour-long crash course in what and where Scotland is, talking about its culture and history and so on.”
Wouldn’t she have had to do the same for South Korean students?
“Maybe, but many of our students never even attended middle or high school because they were living as refugees in China. Some of them don’t even know what a bakery is. You literally have to explain everything to some of them.”
But for Aaron Valdizon, a missionary from America working at the school, there are definite advantages to teaching North Koreans.
“They work really hard,” he says, “and they never complain. It’s like they’re making up for lost time, and they’re happy to be alive.”
On a usual night, there are around five students in each of the three classes. But last night’s farewell party for one of the teachers took a heavy toll on attendance the next day and just four students showed up. Those who came, however, were more than happy to talk.
“Cassandra” (the students decline to have their real name used for fear of retribution against family members still in the North) is a chatty woman in her early 20s who has been in South Korea for about three years.
In common with all the students here, she finds learning English to be very demanding. “Some students have the choice of learning Russian or English at high school in North Korea, but none can speak it very well. Whether it’s to get into a good school or to get a job, you have to learn English in the South.”
One aspect of life here that all the students say is especially galling is the blizzard of “Konglish” expressions in the South’s vernacular. With the kind of ruthless ardor characteristic of totalitarian regimes, Pyongyang has completely prevented foreign words and terms from spoiling the mother tongue. This results in words such as jikseunggi ― literally meaning “machine that goes straight up” ― for helicopter (Southerners use the English-derived helgi). Ironically, then, studying English can actually help North Koreans understand the local version of Korean better.
When asked about friendships with South Koreans, Cassandra’s classmate, “Roger,” says that he spends about half of his free time with Southerners, and the other half with fellow defectors.
“Generally people are friendly here, but there are times when I order in a restaurant or something and people act a little hostile after hearing my accent.”
Both agree that while the social scene is far better in the South, it can be a little difficult navigating the choppy waters of dating here. So just how does one go about wooing the opposite sex in the North?
“It’s totally different from here,” says Cassandra. “No one really dates before marriage in the North.”
Roger, however, disagrees. “I did,” he says. “I went on a few dates. We would go and see a movie or something like that.”
In the other classroom, “Chris” and “Jason” discuss their plans for the future. Both want to be lawyers, but neither cites money as his motivation. Instead, Chris talks of how “law is the basis of society.”
Jason is perhaps unique among the four in that he comes from a relatively privileged background. As a professional soccer player for the Pyongyang football club, Jason says he was part of the “middle rank” of North Korean society. Jason’s job brought benefits, including exemption from the North’s 10-year military service requirement, sufficient funds to visit Pyongyang’s few karaoke rooms (“There are lots of songs about Kim Jong-il,” Jason says), and even the opportunity to watch the occasional South Korean drama series.
“‘All In’ [a hit 2003 drama show] is really trendy among the young up there,” says Jason.
But isn’t it difficult or even dangerous to watch such “subversive” material, even in Pyongyang?
“A little I suppose,” says Jason. “Actually, Pyongyang and Seoul aren’t so very different. If you have money, you can do anything you want.”
A certain cynicism among defectors is surely understandable. As recently as the early 1990s, the arrival of North Koreans was feted in the South as a kind of propaganda victory over Pyongyang. Now engaged in a soft rapprochement strategy, the Seoul government, not to mention assorted “progressive” activist groups, avoids anything that could cause so much as a whiff of offense to its prickly northern neighbor. The plight of defectors is therefore often treated with a vague sense of embarrassment.
“When I was helping migrant workers in South Korea,” says Ms. Cho, the school’s principal, “everyone told me I was very progressive. As soon as I started helping North Korean refugees, I was suddenly called very right-wing and conservative. But I haven’t changed at all.”
Ms. Cho’s experience helping North Koreans dates back to 1997, when a trip to China to meet with some migrant workers opened her eyes to the plight of refugees from the North.
“When I first started working with migrant workers [in South Korea],” she says, “I thought they had the most wretched existence in the world. But after going to China, it became clear that the lives of the North Korean refugees there were even worse. I came to the conclusion that if I didn’t help them, I simply couldn’t live a normal existence in South Korea.”
Ms. Cho’s activities did not go down well with the Chinese authorities, who classify North Korean refugees as economic migrants and are treaty-bound to return them to their homeland. Once, after being caught trying to help some North Koreans escape to a third country, Ms. Cho was briefly detained in a military holding camp where, she says, she was subjected to frequent threats.
Since an overzealous South Korean television reporter broke a promise to conceal her identity in a report on North Koreans in China, Ms. Cho has been barred from entering the country. She said, however, that she feels that her current work helping North Koreans in South Korea is every bit as important as it was in China.
Although Ms. Cho is aware of the thorny politics involved in the human rights issue, she says the bottom line for her will always be the well-being of the refugees.
“Too many in South Korea base their views on the North Korea issue on how it can further their own agendas or ambitions. You can’t think of it like that; you have to think about it in terms of how you can help [the defectors] because their lives are so hard.”
by Niels Footman
The Jayoutuh School is holding a fundraising event tomorrow at 6:30 pm. Called “A Charity Night for Jayoutuh,” the evening’s events will include dinner, a performance by the students and a report on the school’s programs. For more information, call Janice Jung at (0505) 446-4646, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.