School stress is toughest on tender-age defectors

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School stress is toughest on tender-age defectors

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A teacher at the Heavenly Dream School, the country’s first alternative school for minor North Korean defectors, gives a biology lecture. Since its opening in 2003, the North Korea-defector only school in Songpa District, southeastern Seoul, has shown a surprising 88 percent college admission rate. Provided by the school

It’s a spring afternoon at the Heavenly Dream School in Songpa District, southeastern Seoul, and eight young defectors from North Korea are studying the basics of modern, capitalistic society. The teacher talks about gross domestic product, gives a lecture about excessive government regulation and its effects on a market, and describes how to accumulate assets.

A 17-year-old student surnamed Kim raises her hand. “Is having shares in Samsung Electronics regarded as a form of savings?” she asks. “Or is it merely an investment?”

Kim, who was born and raised in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province in northeastern North Korea, escaped across the Tumen River border to China in 2010. Kim, who requested anonymity to shield relatives remaining in the North, is one of 55 students at Korea’s first school run specifically for defectors. Most are studying to try to get into a South Korean college.

The school helps the students prepare for middle and high school equivalency exams, making up for the gaps in their education in the North or while on the run as defectors. Then it trains them for college entrance exams.

It was the first school to take in a steady stream of minors coming to South Korea from the North - some with families, some all on their own.

Heavenly Dream School, which is mainly run by charity donations, has had strikingly high college admission rates, surprising people who work with defectors and educators.

Since its opening in 2003, 113 students have graduated from the church-run school. Among them, 100 went on to college, an 88 percent college admission rate. Last year, 16 of its graduates were admitted to universities in Seoul including Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Hongik University and Hanyang University.

The average college admission rate of high schools in Korea was 72.5 percent in 2011.

Heavenly Dream School’s secret is a strict set of rules imposed on defector students. “We have a high level of principles to follow,” Park Min-ho, an official at the school told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “We don’t hesitate to dismiss students who have broken rules, such as not coming to class.”

Another contributing factor is the school’s group-home system, in which teachers and students live together in apartments. Among the 55 students at the school, 48 live in the group-home system. Normally, four students and one teacher share a three-room apartment near the school.

“Students who defected on their own without parents utilize the group-home system,” says Kim Mi-hee, a teacher who lives with students in an apartment, “but so do those with families in the South.”

Kim says three of her four “roommates” made their way to the South without parents, and they often have emotional scars from defecting. “The system works to heal the emotional pain suffered during their journeys here,” she says.

The school’s record is particularly impressive because young defectors often have a tough time adjusting to South Korean schools. Their educations in the North weren’t enough to prepare them for schools in the South. And some weren’t in school in the North or in China as they made their way to South Korea.

“One of the most pressing difficulties facing minor defectors is their low level of scholastic abilities,” says Kim Shin-hee, a researcher at the education support center for North Korean migrants at the Korean Educational Development Institute.

“Problems are most acute for students who stayed in China or a third country for a long time in hiding, seeking the right timing to flee to the South. Adolescents in a third country are largely deprived of learning opportunities, making it much more challenging for them to adopt to the Korean education system once they come here,” Kim adds.

Dropout rates for defectors are almost four times higher than for South Korean students, according to the Ministry of Education.

In a survey conducted between March 2011 and February 2012, 56 defectors in elementary, middle and high schools dropped out from a total figure of 1,681, or 3.3 percent. The dropout rate for their South Korean counterparts was 0.84 percent.

Researcher Kim of the Korean Educational Development Institute interviewed the 56 dropouts for her doctoral thesis. She found that 24 quit because they were leaving South Korea to migrate to another country, while 13 of them were kicked out of school for unexplained, prolonged leaves of absence. Five said they had difficulties adapting to schools because of low level of academic skills or because they were older than the other kids in their classes. Two of the 56 went missing entirely.

“I was not confident I would do well in a public high school here,” says Kim, the student at the Heavenly Dream School school. She passed the high school equivalency exam last year and is now studying for college. “Schools in North Korea do not teach foreign words like English words, or even Korean words derived from Chinese characters. I had no idea what the text books were saying at first.”

The longer the young minor spent in China or a third country en route to South Korea, the harder it is for them to readjust to schools. An exception is when defectors can afford education during their stays in the third country.

“With money to bribe officials, everything is possible in China,” says Lim, an 18-year-old student at the Heavenly Dream School who asked her full name not to be printed. Lim, who is from Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province, crossed the border into China in 2004 and went to public school in Beijing until she came to the South in 2011. Lim speaks fluent Chinese.

“Lim was fortunate enough to have received education in Beijing as her mother was financially capable of putting her into a school [in Beijing],” says Jung Da-woon, a modern society teacher at the school. “But her case is something out of the ordinary for North Korean defectors.”

An utterly different society also presents huge challenges to the young defectors. In North Korea, family background and loyalty to Pyongyang’s Korean Workers’ Party dictated a kid’s social and educational standing. In South Korea, individual choice and competition with peers are a crucial part of success.

“Everything here is so fast,” says Kim. “I think teachers here try to motivate us to compete with other students through scholarship programs, something we have not experienced in the communist system in the North.”

“Making matters more difficult for young defectors is weak parental support,” notes researcher Kim. “Minor defectors’ parents, who are themselves defectors, are having their own difficulties adjusting to the society here with many families going through divorce or other forms of family disintegration.”

Prejudice against North Koreans - and stereotypes about them - makes adjustment even harder.

“I became a target for bullies at school in Cheongju, North Chungcheong, because of my defector status, which is why I decided to quit school there and decided to come here,” recalls Lim.

“I feel more at ease being with defector friends at my age,” a 22-year-old defector surnamed Kim from North Hamgyong Province told the Korea JoongAng Daily during an interview in March. Kim came to Seoul in 2005 with her mother.

Kim went to public high school in Seoul and is now a sophomore at Sogang University, where President Park Geun-hye studied. She is considered by researchers a model success story among young defectors.

Perhaps, but that doesn’t make life in South Korea a bed of roses for young defectors.

“When I tell people that I defected from the North, I feel a sense of being inferior,” she says. “I feel as if I am a second-class citizen.”


By Kang Jin-kyu [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]

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