North Korean refugees adapt to life, school, and prejudice in South Korea

North Korean refugee numbers in South Korea are expected to top 20,000 by this October amid reports of more food shortages and growing political instability.

Justin McCurry
Teens and young adults who defected from North Korea attend class at Hangyeore school in Anseong, South Korea.

It seems inappropriate to describe Kim Yong-hee as blessed.

The teenager hasn't seen his father in two years, and his mother disappeared a year ago. He lives in one of Asia's wealthiest countries, but in adulthood he is likely to encounter discrimination from potential employers and, if he manages to find work, a salary well below the national average.

Yet Yong-hee, a North Korean who escaped to the South two years ago, considers himself fortunate. "I like living here because it's wealthy and I can do more or less what I like, but I miss my parents," he says.

More and more young North Korean numbers come South

Yong-hee is one of 200 young defectors studying at Hangyeore middle and high school, a government-funded facility 80 kilometers south of Seoul. He is one of 19,300 North Koreans to have defected to the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, the initial trickle turning into a flood in the late 1990s when the North was hit by a devastating famine.

The total is expected to top 20,000 by this October amid reports of more food shortages and growing political instability, as the regime's ailing leader, Kim Jong-il, attempts a transfer of power to his son Kim Jong-un.

The economic situation in the North has worsened since a botched currency revaluation last year rendered household savings almost worthless and sparked a rapid rise in the price of rice and other staples.

School and hardship

Here at the Hangyeore school, which opened in 2006, students ages 13 to 24 attempt to acquire the skills they need to adjust to life in a wealthy democracy. Many students arrive without parents and bear the emotional scars of a childhood spent in one of the world's poorest and most repressive countries. Most witnessed public executions and saw members of their family die of starvation.

But as many defectors have discovered, arrival in the South does not necessarily signal the end of hardship. Poor language skills and residual prejudice mean defectors typically earn much less than South Koreans. Their unemployment rate is almost 14 percent compared with the national average of 4 percent.

Twenty-one-year old Yi Gil-dong says a rare glimpse of South Korean television was the catalyst for her journey into China on the back of a bribed North Korean soldier. Ms. Yi, who graduates next year, hopes to qualify as a psychiatrist and counsel other North Korean defectors.

"I wasn't even allowed to wear the shoes I wanted," Yi says of her school days in the North. "We pretended to believe the propaganda we were taught at school. But we knew the difference between being free and not being free. It feels natural for me to be here, like this is where I am supposed to be."

[ Editor's note: Defectors' names have been changed to protect their families.]

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