Sunday, December 28, 2008

S. Korean School Isolates N. Korean Defectors to Better Integrate Them

I came across this article while surfing the Net for news about South Korea.

S. Korean School Isolates N. Korean Defectors to Better Integrate Them

There are about 15,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea. That number is steadily growing. Most of them left the communist North to escape hunger, severe deprivation and political repression. Starting a new life in the advanced, capitalist South is daunting -- especially when it comes to getting an education. VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin traveled to a special school that is trying to level the playing field of opportunity for North Korean arrivals.

I think it's kind of interesting to consider that an individual has a lot of difficulties FUNCTIONING within an "advanced, capitalist" socio-cultural environment without a specific education and developmental environment. Makes you think about how much 'colonizing' of the mind goes on in education systems both in the West and the East . . .

Something else I just realized is that if there is only ONE school how does the Korean government help ADULTS assimilate back into the culture here? Where do they do this? I think I remembered reading something about a center that is used for this and how psychiatrists were just recently put in place there. The statistics for mental disorders went through the roof because there was someone actually in place that could assess the condition of the defectees . . . and this was RECENT news too. I guess if you defected earlier on in the center's history you were just out of luck . . .

The bell rings and uniformed students hurry to their next lesson. It looks like a typical South Korean school day. But, here, there are some big differences.

None of the students attending classes here were born in South Korea. All of them fled -- at one point or another -- from North Korea. They are among thousands of North Koreans who have arrived in South Korea after making an illegal border crossing into China, where they arranged passage here, often via travel brokers who operate in secret. The process is usually dangerous and traumatizing.

Because of the communist North's isolation and poverty, they have enjoyed few if any of the learning opportunities South Korean children take for granted. Because of food shortages, they are noticeably smaller than South Koreans. Even using their native language is hard, because the South's version of Korean has borrowed so many words from other countries, over the decades.

I've heard Korean English teachers complain about this linguistic phenomenon whenever I teach in-service training programs. It's something that doesn't seem to be talked about much because of the necessary bilingualism needed to make any kind of informed opinion.

This is also something that not many bloggers or editorials about reunification ever seem to address. If the North and South ever reunite how will they communicate? Apparently with great difficulty.

So here, at the Hankyoreh Middle and High School in the South Korean town, Anseong, they get special attention. The students eat, sleep and study on campus. Security is kept tight.

It's sad to think that when you escape North Korea you just end up in another kind of 'prison.'

It is South Korea's only publically-administered school exclusively for North Korean defectors. Principal Kwak Jong-moon says it is designed to meet every need -- not just academics.

So if the South Korean government actually is seeking reunification, and they have only built ONE school for rehabilitation/re-education . . . makes you think that something doesn't make sense . . . the public mission statement is that they want reunification, but the actual infrastructure that needs to be developed is almost non-existent.

He says the basic goal is to acclimate the North Koreans to the very different culture and society of South Korea. The school provides psychological counseling to help the students attain emotional stability. He says a range of medical treatment is also available.

It bothers me when I read about psychological/psychiatric methods being used in sync with 'education' to shape an individual's reality and psyche. I wonder if one of the North Koreans wanted to go back to North Korea if they'd be given the choice/liberty/right to do so . . . not that I'm saying I think any of them would choose to go back--but the right to do so should exist.

Most of the North Korean students have lost one or both parents or have left family members behind in the North. Kwak says the school does the best it can to fill that void.

He says teachers live with students, in the dormitories, and become a reassuring presence, just like mothers and fathers. He says they can sometimes even be better, because they can keep teaching the students after school, which many parents cannot do.

The students' curriculum includes everything from history to English to digital-media technology. They also play sports, from badminton to traditional Asian swordplay.

Students in a drama class have been rehearsing a play called "You Are Not Alone." Drama teacher Lee Do-ran says the young North Koreans appreciate the chance to act out the challenges of starting their new lives.

I would really love to see a translated version of the script for this play.

She says the culture shock North Korean defectors experience, when they first arrive in the South, can sometimes lead to conflict. She says the play deals with that and with other problems faced by all young people.

Interesting how role-playing helps to shape a person's 'reality stage' and the kind of 'role' that you play in REAL LIFE. Makes you re-think the kinds of role-plays and other uses of drama in an educational context. Add to the mix that it's not just a script with language that they lack and must learn, it's also all of the cultural norms that have to be learned, practiced, and naturalized.

Back in the dormitories, at night, the North Korean students say they spend much of their free time talking about life back home and their hopes of returning, one day. Twenty-one-year-old student Kim Kyung-ha says her life at Hankyoreh has helped her see the South differently.

I wonder if there are any North Koreans who have defected that are writing disapora stories of dislocation, identity, etc. It's something I might look into in the future.

She says, when she watched South Korean television in China, it looked as though everyone in the South was one big family. But she was disappointed to find that people here can be very cold. However, she says the teachers at this school are a big exception.

Wow . . . I wonder how South Koreans would respond to this observation? People would not be able to use the "You're not Korean" therefore "You don't understand Korea" logic in response to this criticism.

Kim and most of the other students are not expected to graduate formally from Hankyoreh. Instead, they will transition to regular South Korean schools when their teachers feel they are emotionally and academically ready for that challenge.

VOA News

The last thought I have about the article is that the isolation is not just for the 'benefit' of the North Koreans--I think there must be something in play here in regards to a kind of 'cultural quarantine' to prevent the North Koreans from 'infecting' South Koreans with the ideological programming of North Korean culture. I wonder what would happen if the defectees were allowed to have complete freedom when they enter South Korea. They would need to have some kind of support network for shelter, food, medical care, and education of course. But why not allow them to choose their own pace of re-entry into South Korean society? I'm sure there are a lot of other issues I'm not even touching on here, but the fundamental issue of liberty still remains.


I did a bit more surfing and came across this article with a lot more specific info . . .

N.Korean teen defectors get capitalist education

"Up until the first 22 students came to the school when it opened in 2006, the government did not have any special curriculum for the defectors, who were usually so overwhelmed by schools in the South that they simply dropped out."

"Hangyoreh has been pushed to its limits due to an ever increasing number of defectors. About half of the 14,000 North Koreans who have defected to the South since 1989 have arrived in the last three years."

Not very encouraging when you consider what might happen if reunification ever does happen.


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