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(Yonhap Feature) Alternative schools help young N.K. defectors find new dreams

All Headlines 09:00 December 22, 2016

By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, Dec. 22 (Yonhap) -- Kim Jung-hyang, a 20-year-old North Korean defector, has never slept for more than four hours a day since she came to South Korea in late 2013.

Since she never attended school in the North, she has had to work extra hours to catch up with her South Korean high school classmates. She didn't know where to start but what helped her stay focused was her dream to become a teacher.

Her relentless efforts, coupled with benefits from special admission programs available for North Korean defectors, have paid off and now she is preparing to study at a prestigious college next year. All of this, however, might not have been possible if she had not made a decision to move to an alternative school dedicated to educating students like her.

"I came to Yeomyung School partly due to economic challenges. The dormitory is free, meals are free, and the infrastructure is great," she said in a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency, asking for an alias to be used.

"Besides that, my life at the previous school was so dry and tough since everything centered around grades and the college entrance exam. No time to take a breath. Another perk here is that it focuses more on core subjects and things needed for college life. No less focus is placed on healing and recovery," she added.

Nestled on a hillside of Mount Nam in central Seoul, Yeomyung is an alternative school launched in 2004 to help young North Korean defectors find hope and dreams in the South through education. Around 30 students, including Kim, will graduate from the school early next year.

This undated photo provided by Yeomyung School shows the exterior of the school in central Seoul. (Yonhap)

Yeomyung is one of nine such major alternative schools whose main objective is to provide "tailored" education for those with "unique" experience and needs.

They do provide Korean, English, math, science, history and other major subjects needed for the college entrance exam, but it is done not in a "one-size-fits-all" manner as seen in many other ordinary Korean schools but in a way that fits the level of each group by capitalizing on a relatively small number of students.

Though it depends on whether the schools are certified or not by the unification and education ministries here, they are mostly eligible for government support and subsidies with students taking comfort in studying without worrying about money.

Demand is now growing for alternative school programs as the number of North Korean defectors and their kids is on the steady rise.

According to the unification ministry in charge of inter-Korean affairs, including North Korean defectors, the number of people coming from the North exceeded 30,000 at the end of November. Though exact figures are not available, some estimates put the school-aged North Korean defectors at around 3,500.

Lee Hye-won, a history teacher at Yeomyung School, said that education for North Korean defectors should be different in that there is a "void" in education caused in the process of defection.

The "horrible" experience and "trauma" they had to endure when leaving their home country cannot be ignored as well.

"North Korean students couldn't study at all in the process of defection. That void needs to be filled by providing classes tailored to meet their respective needs," Lee said.

"We also provide art therapy to help them get over trauma inflicted from the defection process. There are music classes and other programs designed to heal their wounds," she added.

She noted another merit that her students have at the school is a "parentlike" care from teachers that help them stay on track both on and off campus, and a "familylike" relationship with other classmates whose age ranges from 17-27.

"When they are in school, they are in good hands, but we have to take care of them even when they go out of school as many of them do not stay with their parents and some do not have parents. We have to play the role of their parents both in and out of school," she noted.

In this undated photo provided by Yeomyung School, a foreign teacher speaks with students during a small-group English class. (Yonhap)

Other major reasons for North Korean defectors to opt for alternative schools are such daily and even more practical challenges as language and cultural differences stemming from the decades-old separation of the two Koreas.

Differences sometimes lead to discrimination and bullying at conventional schools, a major reason for young North Korean defectors to drop out. This is apparently based on prejudice about people who came from the isolated, impoverished and belligerent northern neighbor.

Choi Mi-jin, a 25-year-old woman who defected to Seoul in the mid-2000s and works at a company in Seoul, does not see herself as a victim of bullying during her school days. But she still remembers the sense of relief she felt after switching to an alternative high school.

"I had a hard time catching up with other South Korean students since I finished only elementary school in the North. Cultural and language differences held me back in speaking out in an ordinary school where I had to study with South Korean students," she said.

"But I felt less hesitant after moving to an alternative school," she said. "All of the things I learned there are still of great help at work right now."

Education is cited as one of the most effective ways to help North Korean defectors get assimilated to South Korean society by teaching them customs, language and all necessary things at an early age. The objective might be just making them be "part of us."

This, however, sometimes deepens identity confusion among young North Korean defectors, who have to endure a social stigma attached to the word "North Korea" when living in the South.

Experts argued that assimilation shouldn't be the ultimate objective of education. What is important is to build the "identity" among North Korean defectors, make them not feel ashamed about the fact they came from the North and proudly live their lives in South Korea.

"I believe that they should live here with their own identity. They have to admit that they came from the North. I hope that the students from the North grow up with their own identity," a government official handling inter-Korean affairs said. "I want them to grow up and become a bridge in the future when the two Koreas get reunited."

Debate on the issue seems to be under way at school, a positive sign that shows that things are moving in the right direction.

Lee, the history teacher at Yeomyung School, remembered some of her students engaged in a debate over their identity during a school field trip last year.

"It started when one student said that he does not want to be called and categorized as North Korean defectors. Then another student talked about why we should conceal our identity," she said. "It has been the case that most students don't like to let other people know where they came from, but the trend seems to be changing a little bit."

Her immediate concern, however, seems to be more about how her students will handle their new lives lying ahead after graduation where they will be faced with "real" and "tough" competition with no such benefits or special treatment granted in school.

"There will be no such special treatment and no parentlike care for them once they graduate from school," she said. "I want them to work harder with a sense of more responsibility and control of their own lives after graduation."


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