Rekindling Hope for North Korean Youth

This September, the number of North Korean defectors living in South Korea is likely to pass 20,000. Hanawon, the resettlement education center for defectors located just outside Seoul, recently revealed that a total of 19,300 defectors were in South Korea as of 1 July, and forecast that the tally would surpass the 20,000 mark this coming September.

It is a number which has been rising steadily ever since eight people first crossed the border in 1993, with records for 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009 showing 2018, 2544, 2809, and 2927 defectors reaching South Korean territory respectively.

To mark the reaching of such a milestone, The Daily NK has reviewed the current situation for defectors.

There are more than a few things that newly arrived North Korean defectors must take care of in order to settle into South Korean society. From adapting to social life to earning a living, they are hindered at every turn. This results in many being neglected.

There are numerous cases in which the absence of parental guidance has resulted in lower school grades and disillusionment for young defectors. This often ends in their giving up their studies entirely. However, there are increasing attempts to help out these youths by schools, non-governmental organizations and volunteer workers. One of the most successful of these attempts has been the “one-on-one mentoring program”.

Lee Hyang Gyu, the director of research and planning at the North Korean Youth Educational Support Center, said, “The one-on-one mentoring program is spreading nationwide. It is empowering those youths who would otherwise have given up their studies.” The one-on-one mentoring program pairs a North Korean student with a South Korean teacher, who helps out the student with his/her studies.

The program is financed by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, which divides its budget among regional offices. Each regional office then allocates the budget to schools where North Korean students are enrolled. The amount disbursed is currently 580,000 won per student, per year, which is paid to the ‘mentor’.

While this amount is far short of what the ‘mentor’ who teaches his/her student over the course of a year would ordinarily expect to receive, it is in fact an increase over previous years. In effect, this means that mentors are giving their free time to teach their students.

[imText1]Kim Mi Yeon, a teacher at Sangwon Elementary School, does the one-on-one mentoring program twice a week during the school semester, and six or seven hours a week during summer break. While there is no obligation to meet the students during summer break, she puts in her own time to teach the student.

“Not much can be achieved in terms of scholastic performance during the short semester, which is why I visit the students’ homes during vacation to give extra lessons,” said Kim.

I visited the home of Da Eun, an elementary student under the tutelage of Ms. Kim. “Let’s study after playing a game of gong-gi (a popular traditional children’s game),” says a playful Da Eun. She adds amicably during the game, “Since you are better than me, you should play with a handicap!”, “If you lose this round, I win!” Ms. Kim always reserves time to play games with her students before starting class.

It would be asking too much of other teachers to demand they follow Ms. Kim’s meticulous approach to the art of mentoring. In most cases, the teachers are also in charge of an entire class of students and must carry out regular administrative work on top of acting as mentors.

Thus, the one-on-one system can easily become short, superficial and ineffective. The youths are then unable to receive the kind of intensive care and interest they deserve.

Jin Jung Hee, a teacher from Taerang Elementary school who is responsible for the mentoring program in the Kangbuk district of Seoul, said, “A meticulous approach is hard for many of the teachers to follow. However, given their circumstances, the responsibility does not rest solely on their shoulders.” She added, “Whether meticulous or not, the mere providing of such a program makes a big difference in itself.”

“Being a mentor for the young North Korean students, who need to be cared for attentively, requires sacrifice on the part of the teachers. We are helping our teachers better understand these particular students by providing lectures and training programs regarding their particularities. As the mentoring program gains traction nationwide and teacher home visits become more commonplace, I believe more teachers will participate in the program.”

[imText2]A tailor-made education program for North Korean students is also underway at a public school.
Park In Hwa, the principal of Kayang Elementary school, says he simply could not ignore the large number of North Korean students enrolled in the school.

He said, “In the past, teachers would often be perplexed when it came to instructing North Korean students. In our case, we provided a student instruction manual for the teachers and conducted tours of Hankyoreh School (a specialist school exclusively for North Korean students), and thus were able to train specialist teachers for North Korean students. The change in perception of the teachers toward North Korean students in turn has brought about a change among the North Korean students and parents who were previously reluctant to reveal their identities (as North Korean defectors). More people are open about it now.”

During every summer break at Kayang Elementary school, there is a special program that awaits the North Korean students. The program is made up of four parts, namely a summer project, a physical exercise session, a cultural experience session, and a cooking competition. Students participate in each of the programs either once or twice a week.

At the end of the program, the teachers, volunteers, and students jointly gather to evaluate the program.

Moon Mi Ra, a teacher at the school, explained that the program “effectively plays the role of parent, by consistently checking up on a student’s progress during the vacation period.”

There are also programs for North Korean youths organized by NGOs. Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights has been hosting the “Hankyoreh Seasonal School” since August 2001 for ‘home alone’ North Korean students, with its 19th session opening its doors this coming August.

The Hankyoreh Seasonal School aims to supplement the scholastic needs of North Korean students who, over the course of three weeks, receive guidance from South Korean public school teachers and college student volunteers. However, this year, the school will host a special program from 4-9 August. The special program intends to help North Korean and South Korean youths understand their common history and put their identities into perspective. This will be achieved through a ‘history exploration’ camp in which North and South Korean youths will jointly seek out historical artifacts scattered throughout Korea.

Kim Mi Ri, who is in charge of the program, said, “North Korean youths have a distorted understanding of history due to North Korean historical teachings oriented around the ‘revolutionary deeds’ of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and narrowly focused on the Northern half of the peninsula,” and added, “History is one of the most frequently neglected subjects, as most of the students spend time studying subjects such as Korean, English, and Math. At a time when peoples’ perceptions of the importance of history are rapidly fading away, this camp aims to reclaim the shared identity of North and South Korean youths.”

On reactions to the program, she said, “Parents have been very supportive. This is because the seasonal school not only educates the ‘home-alone’ students, but also provides them with a chance to meet their peers.”

Such efforts by society at large to assist North Korean youth have slowly started to pay off. The sharp decline in regular school dropouts is of special note.

According to the “2009 Report on North Korean Youth Enrollment,” which was made public this March by the North Korean Youth Educational Support Center, while the number of North Korean youths enrolled in regular schools steadily increased from 2006 to 2008, the dropout rate, on the whole, declined.

The dropout rate from 2006 to 2007 increased on all levels. However, it dropped on all levels between 2007 and 2008, although the high school dropout rate for 2008 still remained two percentage points higher than that of 2006. The 2008 dropout rates for elementary and middle school enrollments were all below 2006 levels, according to the report.

Many defectors come here in search of freedom; but many are disillusioned by the discrimination they face in South Korean society. We believe now is a good time for the government, the private sector and ordinary citizens to come together to help these defectors start anew.