Young North Korean defectors find lifeline in friendly school in South

Some 10,000 defectors under 30 live in South Korea. But vast differences in their outlook and education make them six times more likely to drop out of school. A former member of parliament is doing something about that. 

The frozen Tumen river separating North Korea (L) from China is seen in this photo taken from the Chinese border city of Tumen, China, March 18, 2015. It's much more dangerous, and twice as expensive, to defect from North Korea since Kim Jong-un took power in Pyongyang three and a half years ago, refugees and experts say, and far fewer people are escaping from the repressive and impoverished country.

As North Korean defectors and their families struggle to assimilate in the South, going to school is both a struggle and an opportunity.

Sam Kim, like most high school students in South Korea, is focused on his studies with an eye on his future.

But at 22 and as a defector, he is playing catch-up in a country whose students achieve some of the highest test scores in the world.

Kim arrived in Seoul in 2012 with an education ill-suited to life in a frantically competitive society that, while also Korean, is completely different from the world of North Korea and the regime of Kim Jong-un. In the North, his family moved from place to place, he bounced from school to school, and the last class he remembers taking was six years ago.

So he was fortunate to enroll in Mulmangcho Academy, a boarding school in a mountainous region an hour outside Seoul that for three years has catered exclusively to some 15 younger North Koreans.

“Going straight to a regular school would be too much of a struggle,” Kim says in a somewhat sheepish fashion. “You have to learn the basics and then fit in with ordinary students when you’ve got the confidence,” he adds, declining to use his first name.

Common heritage blurred

Several years after fleeing the North with his mother and older sister, Kim still struggles with math and English, subjects that many of his South Korean peers are known for acing.

“What’s harder than all that is simply adapting,” he says.

The students at Mulmangcho range from elementary to university level. The mission is to offer young defectors – more than 10,000 are under 30, according to the Ministry of Unification – a way to overcome educational disadvantages in a system in which they are six times more likely to drop out than their South Korean peers.

After more than 70 years of division, the common heritage and story of the two Koreas has been frayed beyond recognition, even to stark difference in the evolution of language on each side of the border.

The founder of the school, Park Sun-young, a former member of parliament who relies mostly on private donations to keep the school funded, says that incoming students simply think differently, a result of growing up in an isolated and propaganda-saturated society.

“Their way of thinking is different from South Koreans’ and they can’t communicate as well,” she says. “They use the same language as South Koreans, but their method of expression is different, leading to misunderstandings, and that makes it harder for them to study."

“When I came [to South Korea] last October, there were many hard words,” says another student, Jeong Su-young, who is 22 and wants to be a doctor. “There are lots of English and loanwords used,” in the South, she says, adding that, “As a North Korean, anyone would find it hard but I have to endure it … so I can follow my dreams.”

Malnutrition in the impoverished North also means many young defectors are physically stunted, making them easy targets of school bullies. Other young defectors bear mental scars from trauma suffered in North Korea or during their escape.

Shoes under the window

“Some students are afraid of sleeping with the lights off or with the door closed,” says Ms. Park, the school founder. Other students have unusual habits like keeping their shoes handy while they sleep. In China, after they fled the North, "many of the students kept their shoes under the window to be ready to quickly flee from the police," she says.

Like Kim, whose father and older brother remain in the North, many students are separated from one or even both parents, compounding their sense of isolation.

Kim says he misses the rest of his family, but “it’s impossible” for them to come to South Korea.

Defectors typically struggle in ordinary schools here. The intense competition and long days studying mean that in 2012, South Koreans ranked fourth in the world in reading and math and seventh in science in an OECD study of member nations. Many of them end up studying alongside South Korean students who are much younger. 

Mulmangcho’s approach differs. With six full-time teachers and 20 volunteers, it can offer one-on-one attention. A counselor visits twice a week. The academy also places a strong emphasis on extracurricular activities such as sports and music, in contrast to typical long days of study for young people. 

The natural location is also significant. Mulmangcho is deliberately set away from the frantic bustle of Seoul; the mountains and pastoral fields of Gyeonggi Province are intended to provide a calm learning environment.

“Every day, we do a class among nature for an hour,” says teacher Jo Su-jeong. “We make an effort to heal the students. I think what makes us different from other schools is that we can provide a lot of different activities because we get volunteers from outside.” 

The name of the school is the Korean word for “forget-me-not,” and after three years it is claiming success. Park says all of its students have graduated and some have gone on to prestigious institutions such as Seoul National University.

According to Park, the school receives limited government funding that covers only about a month of its expenses. The school's website lists named donors that in a single month in 2013 show a range of corporate and private contributions ranging from $10 to $20,000.

After two years at the school, Kim says he has improved his grades. But he also hopes that next year will be his last. 

“I want to go to engineering college to learn about technology. I am looking into becoming an engineer,” he says. “I am at high school level now, so I just have to learn a bit more.”

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