Es­cape From Dear Leader to My Class­room in Seoul

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By Samuel Songhoon Lee

SEOUL t a small restau­rant in late Fe­bru­ary, my stu­dent and I ate spicy noo­dle soup and stared at a huge TV show­ing the ex­trav­a­gant cel­e­bra­tion of Kim Jong Il’s 65th birth­day in Py­ongyang. Thou­sands of smil­ing peo­ple pa­raded across the North Korean cap­i­tal and saluted their Dear Leader.

“I was once there,” my stu­dent said. “But even as I danced and smiled, I knew of a bet­ter life out­side.” She said this mat­ter-of-factly and turned to stir her tea. Her search for that bet­ter life had brought her here, at age 13, to Seoul, and to my English class at a spe­cial school for young North Korean de­fec­tors.

The school has more than two dozen stu­dents, mem­bers of a grow­ing con­tin­gent of North Kore­ans who have de­serted that com­mu­nist coun­try since famines in the mid-1990s killed more than 2 mil­lion peo­ple.

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IAc­cord­ing to South Korea’s Min­istry of Uni­fi­ca­tion, 41 North Korean de­fec­tors ar­rived in South Korea in 1995. The num­ber in­creased to 312 in 2000, and to 1,383 in 2005, many of them young peo­ple.

It isn’t easy for th­ese young de­fec­tors to fit into South Korean schools and fill the gaps in their ed­u­ca­tion. Most schools here don’t of­fer tran­si­tion cour­ses on the dif­fer­ences in lan­guage and cul­ture. But catch­ing up with school­work is only one prob­lem they face. n South Korea, a coun­try that with­stood cen­turies of in­va­sions from its Chi­nese and Ja­panese neigh­bors, unity de­fines sur­vival. And with­out eth­nic di­ver­sity or a his­tory of im­mi­gra­tion, unity means con­form­ity. When some­thing be­comes fash­ion­able here, it can have sig­nif­i­cant con­se­quences. For ex­am­ple, South Korea has the world’s high­est ra­tio of cos­metic sur­geons to cit­i­zens, cater­ing to the le­gions of girls who re­ceive eye­lid surgery as a present for their 16th birth­day. This cul­ture of unity and con­form­ity is vastly dif­fer­ent from the one I ex­pe­ri­enced grow­ing up Korean Amer­i­can in New York, Den­ver and Seat­tle. The lack of di­ver­sity at school makes the young de­fec­tors in­stant stand­outs — sub­ject to 15 min­utes of fame and adu­la­tion, then an en­dur­ing pe­riod of iso­la­tion. When their peers ask about their ac­cent — no­tice­ably dif­fer­ent from what’s com­mon in Seoul — most stu­dents say they’re from Gang­won Prov­ince, in the north­east­ern part of the coun­try.

Fac­ing os­tracism from South Korean stu­dents, many young North Korean de­fec­tors drop out of school. Ac­cord­ing to a min­istry re­port in 2005, 43 per­cent of young de­fec­tors were at­tend­ing school, and 29 per­cent had dropped out of mid­dle and high schools. Al­most half of the 198 young de­fec­tors still at­tend­ing school said that they hid their back­ground from class­mates, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey by the Na­tional Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion.

“Don’t ex­pect them to be like us just be­cause they look Korean and speak Korean,” the prin­ci­pal told me on the ori­en­ta­tion day for vol­un­teer teach­ers at School 34, an in­de­pen­dent school for de­fec­tors. “Treat them like for­eign­ers, but with re­spect.”

I was as­signed to teach two English classes to stu­dents ages 15 to 27. When I in­tro­duced my­self, they were as puz­zled and curious about me as I was about them. An over­sized Korean Amer­i­can with big Sony head­phones — was I re­ally one of them?

Tak­ing the prin­ci­pal’s ad­vice, I made it clear from the start that I was not, and that I prob­a­bly could not un­der­stand the ob­sta­cles they had to over­come to reach the free world. Many feel deeply be­trayed by Kim and the pro­pa­ganda they were forced to learn. But they have achieved a sur­pris­ing dis­tance from their painful past. They share mem­o­ries — which in­clude watch­ing pub­lic ex­e­cu­tions and boil­ing grass to eat in times of famine — as if they were recit­ing folk tales with a sense of won­der and hu­mor.

Among my stu­dents, Young Ho stood out be­cause of his mo­ti­va­tion to learn English. His fam­ily is still in North Korea, and he wants to earn the $15,000 in pay­offs it would take to get them to Seoul. Nu­mer­ous un­der­ground rail­roads es­tab­lished by bro­kers in China make res­cu­ing fam­ily mem­bers from North Korea pos­si­ble, he told me — if one has the money. “I can work hard for two years and make that money. But I will lag be­hind in my study. Then what can I do even if my fam­ily were to come here?” he said.

In North Korea, he knew ex­actly what he wanted to do: be­come a lieu­tenant in the North Korean army. He dreamed of killing as many Amer­i­cans and South Kore­ans as he could. In his child­hood home, a framed photo of his grand­fa­ther and Kim was promi­nently dis­played on the liv­ing room wall. His fam­ily was part of North Korea’s small and reclu­sive elite so­ci­ety, and he would have marched off as an army lieu­tenant if he hadn’t re­ceived a black-mar­ket Sony Walk­man for his 15th birth­day and lis­tened to for­bid­den South Korean ra­dio fre­quen­cies.

Late at night, muf­fling the scratchy sig­nal so as not to get caught, he tuned in to the news, learn­ing that much of what he was taught all day in school was a lie. “We learned that the Amer­i­cans were con­stantly try­ing to in­vade us. But from the South Korean news, I learned that it was the other way around. But my class­mates truly be­lieved in what we were learn­ing. They were like ro­bots.”

When he grad­u­ated from high school and was or­dered to serve 13 years in the mil­i­tary, he de­cided to de­fect. His fa­ther bribed the North Korean border pa­trol­men, who took him to China. Be­cause the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment reg­u­larly repa­tri­ated North Korean refugees, South Korean mis­sion­ar­ies took him to Myan­mar, where Seoul’s con­sulate pre­pared the pa­pers for his fi­nal jour­ney to South Korea.

Soon af­ter ar­riv­ing in Seoul, he found School 34 and a com­mu­nity of oth­ers like him. Most stu­dents were too poor to have bribed their way out. In­stead, they had braved of­ten frigid wa­ters to swim across the Tu­men River to China.

Ha Bok Ran, a good-hu­mored stu­dent, lost her par­ents to star­va­tion be­fore she turned 11. To sur­vive, she said, she crossed the Tu­men many times to ob­tain food and other goods in China that she could sell on North Korea’s wide­spread black mar­ket. When she de­fected, she went as far as Xinyang, in China’s south­east­ern He­nan Prov­ince. Dis­cov­ered by Chi­nese agents, she was repa­tri­ated and served six months in prison. She was 13 at the time. Af­ter be­ing re­leased, she swam across the river again and this time she stayed in China, beg­ging for food. Even­tu­ally, mis­sion­ar­ies helped her get to Seoul.

Park Jung Hyuk grad­u­ated from School 34 a few weeks ago and is study­ing at Sungkyunkwan Univer­sity, one of the na­tion’s top col­leges. He grew up a few min­utes away from one of North Korea’s most no­to­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal pris­ons, Prison 22 in Hy­eryung, Ham- Kyung Prov­ince, at the north­ern tip of North Korea. Be­cause food and al­co­hol are scarce in the coun­try­side, the prison guards went to Park’s house for li­ba­tions. “ They al­ways drank heav­ily,” he told me. “ And when they got drunk, they would mum­ble about how sorry they felt for

what they did to pris­on­ers.”

De­spite his rare glimpse of the prison guards and knowl­edge of what they did, Park says he finds it dif­fi­cult to raise aware­ness about the lit­tle-known gu­lags of North Korea among his class­mates in Seoul. Most do not care, he says. Or worse, they take a pro-North Korea stance. Pres­i­dent Roh Moo Hyun has been pas­sion­ately call­ing for the ouster of the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, and a wave of anti-Amer­i­can sen­ti­ment is sweep­ing across col­lege cam­puses. Af­ter eight years of the du­bi­ous “sun­shine pol­icy,” which ad­vo­cated en­gage­ment with rather than con­tain­ment of the com­mu­nist north, South Korean pub­lic sen­ti­ment fa­vors ne­glect­ing thou­sands of North Korean refugees in China and pour­ing cash and aid into Py­ongyang, even with Kim’s ap­par­ent nu­clear am­bi­tions.

“Back in North Korea, we learned to hate and fear Amer­ica,” Yoo Kyung Joo, a 17-year-old stu­dent who at­tended mid­dle school in North Korea, told me one re­cent af­ter­noon over so­das at McDon­ald’s. His fa­ther was once re­spon­si­ble for im­port­ing and dis­tribut­ing Soviet arms to the North Korean army. But Kyung Joo de­fected to South Korea two years ago af­ter his fa­ther was purged. “Now, I’ve re­al­ized that all I learned was a se­ries of lies,” he said, tak­ing a bite of his Big Mac. “I wish my friends back in North Korea could eat this one day.”

We left McDon­ald’s shortly and went back to School 34 to study English.

ne­owriter@hot­mail.com

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

To Kim with love: Dancers donned their finest to cel­e­brate the North Korean pres­i­dent’s 65th birth­day ear­lier this year.

COUR­TESY OF SAMUEL SONGHOON LEE

From the ground up: School 34’s prin­ci­pal ad­dresses stu­dents at the start of a new se­mes­ter in Jan­uary.

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