Escape From Dear Leader to My Classroom in Seoul
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.
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.
To Kim with love: Dancers donned their finest to celebrate the North Korean president’s 65th birthday earlier this year.
From the ground up: School 34’s principal addresses students at the start of a new semester in January.