Support, not scorn, for young defectors

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Support, not scorn, for young defectors

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Some 30 North Korean defectors arrested in China are at risk of being forcibly repatriated to the North. Their families in the South and human rights and civil groups are working desperately to help them.

I have a personal interest in the defector issue because my parents defected from the North. Over 60 years ago, my father left Jeongju, North Pyeongan Province, and my mother left Hamheung, South Hamgyong Province. They met and married in the South. At that time, the prejudice against defectors that exists now was far less severe. But the situation today is very harsh.

We want to make sure defectors arrive safely, but we also need to help them settle here. They are literally the living representation of reunification. The key is to provide “customized” education for this young population.

Yeomyeong School in Namsan, central Seoul, is an alternative school for young North Korean defectors. It is the only academic institute where they can earn the equivalent of a high school diploma. The assistant principal, Jo Myeong-suk, has been doing humanitarian work since college, when she began by helping migrant workers. She opened the school in 2004 with assistance from a number of churches. Most recently, she collected signatures from 1,500 citizens opposing the repatriation of North Korean defectors.

According to Jo, students from the North have a serious fear of admitting mistakes, which is an effect of the strict criticism they have become accustomed to in the North. When playing sports, they think winning is everything. When told to respect the rules, they ask, “How can we survive by following the rules?” This line of thought comes from fighting poverty, a fear of death and miraculously escaping from the North. They had been severely malnourished, and 60 percent suffer from diabetes and anemia, while another 30 percent require psychotherapy.

Ironically, however, institutes like Yeomyeong School cannot receive tuition or government assistance because of the law on protection and settlement assistance for North Korean defectors. According to the law, defectors are not eligible for registration fees and tuition. Therefore, it is no wonder that most schools are reluctant to accept defectors.

This problem needs to be resolved. Looking at the North Korean defector issue closely, I’ve realized that the problem is not with them. It may be a mirror of the present and future of Korean society.

by Noh Jae-hyun

* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

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