Young defectors struggle to learn in South Korea

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Young defectors struggle to learn in South Korea

Children of North Korean defectors were found to lag behind their counterparts academically in South Korea, especially in reading and writing, according to researchers at Ewha Womans University.

Also, these students, already at a disadvantage, had trouble catching up, the study found.

Shin Dong-hee, an education professor at the university, said Tuesday he studied 1,400 North and South Korean students attending elementary, middle and high schools in South Korea over the past four years.

The tests were made by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.

“The average score of the Korean language test for North Korean students aged 13 to 18 was 20 points lower than those of South Korean students,” Shin said.

The biggest problem defectors have is that their vocabularies and expressions are much different from those used in North Korea, Shin said.

According to Shin, most defectors do not have problems communicating in their daily lives, but they have trouble studying South Korean textbooks.

“When I studied as a fifth-grader in primary school in South Korea, I did not understand many words that are not used in the North,” a 16-year-old student said. “Although I can read books here, I do not understand what they mean.”

For students in middle and high school, the problem is especially problematic.

According to the study, the average score in Korean language for a North Korean defector was 16, less than half that of South Korean students, who recorded 43.6.

“The biggest reason for their difficulties is that they stopped studying at an early age when they crossed the border from the North, which can take months or even years,” said Shin.

Additionally, South Korean schools have no appropriate standard to estimate the exact ability of North Korean children and simply put them in classes by age, Shin said.

A teacher in Gyeonggi said: “Some defectors need to learn lower-grade lessons, but schools do not allow them to go to these classes because the schools worry the defectors will feel an age gap with their peers.”

Experts say unstable home lives also deter defectors from concentrating on studies.

If some family members failed to get out of North Korea during the escape, the children have trouble living a normal life as do South Korean students.

Experts say the defectors need special educational help in South Korea.

For example, the Great Vision School, in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi, was built in 2004 and focuses on the needs of the children of defectors only.

By assigning students to classes not by their age but by their abilities, the school boasts about an 80 percent passing rate for students taking qualification exams for college entrance.

With a special one-on-one writing class, the school devised various programs, such as teaching capitalism by asking students to sell soap by themselves or providing psychological programs for children who have been mentally hurt while escaping from their homeland.

“We know the importance of stable circumstances for study, and we facilitated a dormitory for students,” said Gwak Jeong-rae, the school president.


By Jeong Seon-eon, Kim Hee-jin [heejin@joongang.co.kr]

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