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Ji Eun Lee writes about the challenges of integrating young North Korean defectors into South Korean society.
On a quiet Friday night, several North Korean defectors gathered at the camping site near Seoul World Cup Stadium. Defectors are North Koreans who have fled their country for ideological, political, or economic reasons. Risking punishment and even death in case of capture, they cross the country’s armed borders and come to South Korea.
Dressed in the latest fashions and checking text messages on their cell phones, they looked like typical young Koreans. But there was some hesitation in their eyes when they were asked about their lives in South Korea.
“It’s not that we don’t want to talk about our experience here. Most of us are hesitant because talking about the ways in which we don’t fit in only seems to accentuate the fact that we’re…different,” said 26-year-old Young-Woo, and several heads nodded in agreement. “And we really aren’t that different from South Koreans, besides the fact that we’ve escaped North Korea to come here.”
An increasing number of North Koreans are crossing over to South Korea. According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, more than 15,000 defectors live in the country, and in 2008 alone, 2,809 crossed the border.
Many South Koreans regard them as refugees and support programs aimed at helping the defectors. Ironically, it is this very help that places the defectors in an awkward position because they want to avoid standing out.
“We appreciate the help for its sake. As nice as it is to see that South Koreans are paying attention to the plight of North Koreans, the attitude behind such help is often very patronizing,” said Chul-Min, a 23-year-old college student. “Most South Koreans don’t seem to think of us as Koreans. They treat us as if we are exotic foreigners. Though we are aware of the intentions of the South Koreans who want to help us, they seem to have established a distinct mental dichotomy between the two Koreas.”
When asked about the difficulties they face in South Korea, the defectors murmured that life here isn’t as perfect as they’d imagined. Though originally one people sharing centuries of rich culture, decades of separation have widened the gap between the two Koreas.
“Even in terms of language, there is quite a lot of difference in regional dialects. We don’t have trouble communicating. But our distinct accent, or the different words we use, immediately betrays where we come from, attracting curious, uneasy looks,” added Chul-Min. “And speaking of language, proficiency in English seems to be extremely important here. Many defectors face difficulties with English as the level of English education offered in North Korea is very basic. It’s frustrating because it directly affects our opportunities for job or education.”
Many jobs applications in South Korea ask for scores from standardized English tests like TOEFL or TEPS. An estimated 100,000 institutions offer advanced English classes with one hour of lesson costing well over US $30. Expensive private education is often unaffordable for North Korean defectors. Many of them subsist on economic aid from the government. And public education does not give them an edge to compete with South Koreans in school or at the workplace.
English is only one of many difficulties faced by North Koreans in education. Most defectors pursue higher degrees after coming to South Korea, but they often have trouble adjusting to the curriculum.
“The curriculum is just so different from what we had in the North,” said Hye-Young, the youngest of the group at 19. “For instance, Korean history in North Korea is very different from what’s taught here as it’s manipulated by the government to serve as ideological propaganda.” Many defectors are forced to take classes with much younger students.
Difficulties come in many forms, but the group agreed on one thing: behind every difficulty they face is the South Koreans’ thinking that defectors are fundamentally different. “Advocating for the rights of North Koreans is evidently a strong movement here. Grants, lectures, fundraisers, there seem to be so many programs designed to ‘help us out’. Why not start by accepting us as Koreans?” said Hye-Young.
– Ji Eun Lee
(All names have been changed to avoid repercussions for family members still residing in North Korea.)