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(Yonhap Feature) Music therapy program aims to offer hope for young N.K. defectors

All Headlines 11:50 July 14, 2016

By Kim Soo-yeon

SEOUL, July 14 (Yonhap) -- Sitting in a circle, a group of 20 elementary school students are playing paddle drums and other rhythmic instruments, closely watching their teacher's hand gestures not to miss a beat.

Choi Na-ri, a 28-year-old music therapist, waves her hand up and down like she's bouncing a ball to help them feel the rhythm. With a shy smile, a boy imitates her gestures to encourage his friends to tap their instruments to the beat of his air metronome. When the bout of musical improvisation ends, Choi and her students burst into laughter.

It looks like an ordinary music class, but what sets Choi's apart from other music sessions is that she is helping younger North Korean defectors ease stress and better mingle with others through music.

"At first, they said they were afraid of standing in front of friends to facilitate the music play, but they said they enjoyed it later," she said.

Choi is among 30 music therapists who joined the project, titled "the Drumbeat of Hope," designed to help the children of North Korean defectors regain emotional stability and better adapt to South Korean society.

The program, funded by the Korea Post Foundation, set sail in March with the participation of about 230 students from 15 organizations nationwide including elementary schools.

The Graduate School of Music Therapy of Sookmyung Women's University in Seoul is running the program with the cooperation of the Korea Hana Foundation, the state-run agency in charge of offering support to North Korean defectors in the South.

Music therapy involves the use of music in a bid to help those in need of treatment to rehabilitate their physical and psychological health and change their behavior in a desirable way.

More than 29,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea in search for freedom and a better life. But many resettlers are facing a grim reality in settling down on the southern side of the tense inter-Korean border.

A 2014 poll by the Ministry of Unification and the Korea Hana Foundation showed that 48 percent of 744 North Korean defectors aged between eight and 18 said they had difficulty in keeping up with school classes.

The survey showed that 14.9 percent picked the cultural and language barriers as for hardships of their school life while eight percent voiced difficulty in making friends.

The students joining the program mostly consist of either youths who escaped North Korea with their families or those who were born in a third country into the family of defectors.

Depending on schools, some South Korean students participated in the program, a move which therapists say is aimed at helping young defectors smoothly get along with them.

"Younger defectors are important human resources who will play a key role in preparing for unification, but they have difficulty in assimilating into South Korean society due to a language barrier and discrimination," said Yeo Jung-yoon, a professor of music therapy studies at Sookmyung Women's University.

Due to their North Korean accent, some young defectors feel alienated by their South Korean peers.

"Music has the power to unite those who have different cultural backgrounds together and help them learn how to seek harmony," she added.

The program consists of various forms of music sessions tailored to recipients including singing in chorus and musical improvisation. After a months-long rehearsal, the students plan to hold their own concert in December.

During the early stages of the class, however, what surprised music therapists was that many younger defectors used abusive language or had difficulty in concentrating on what therapists said.

A language barrier was also an unexpected challenge for music therapists as some students are able to only speak Chinese.

"At first, students looked combatant. When I let them play instruments by taking turns, they never allowed other friends to use theirs," said therapist Paek Kyung-sil.

But as music therapy sessions evolved, defectors' children began to open up and change the way they acted, increasingly showing interest in joining in, they said. Their tendency towards coarse language and aggressive behavior also noticeably fell.

"I think music played the role of a bridge in connecting between children and me even though I had faced the language barrier," Paek said.

Therapist Choi said that music encouraged younger North Korean defectors to release their pent-up emotions and to learn communication skills by playing music together.

"Some students showed a strong desire to win in an indication that they seem to be under pressure to survive in the South," she said. "But as the therapy sessions proceeded, they found it easier to express how they feel and what they think."

Experts voiced hope that the music therapy project will help more younger defectors dream of a happy future and flourish in their newfound home.

"When I asked my students about their dreams, most of them said that they want to become Chinese food cooks," said Hong Jeong-in, a music therapist. "I felt sad because I thought that they might be hungry in North Korea. I want to help more younger defectors dream of diverse futures."

Professor Yeo expressed hope that the program could serve as a catalyst for South Koreans to throw away the prejudice against North Korean defectors.

"I think that young defectors need help not because they've come from North Korea, but because they need some time to adjust as everyone does when encountering a different culture," the professor said.

sooyeon@yna.co.kr
(END)

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