Growing Pains for North Korean Defector Teens

Some integration issues are cultural, others are just a fact of life.
February 14th, 2013

Over a third of North Korean defector middle school students in South Korea do not feel pride in being South Korean citizens, a survey has found. Of the students polled in a study for the Korean Educational Development Institute (KEDI), a third also felt that South Korea was not a good place to live compared to the rest of the world.

While the findings are unsurprising given the well-documented struggles North Koreans face in adapting to life in the South, this survey may reveal as much about the nature of being a teenager as the students’ sense of pride in South Korea.

Like teenagers everywhere, these young North Korean defectors are passing through one of life’s toughest periods. Often fraught with anxiety over fitting in, getting through school, body image and managing relationships, the teenage years can be a difficult time. It is a period when young people begin to establish their identity in the world. North Korean teenagers not only have to deal with the usual angst-ridden road to self-discovery; they must also cope with the fundamental challenge to their identity as North Koreans.

“Like teenagers everywhere, these young North Korean defectors are passing through one of life’s toughest periods.”

The experience of transiting to the South will most likely have left them scarred by memories of fear, poverty, loss and struggle for survival – experience that can force children to mature ahead of their time. Their South Korean peers must appear soft and spoiled in comparison. South Korean young people don’t help to bridge the gap either, often showing intolerance of defectors by bullying them for seeming primitive or by making offensive generalisations about them. The oft-mentioned “identity crisis” North Koreans face is therefore double-edged in the case of North Korean teens. On one side they are facing the growing pains of youth, while on the other they feel pressure to re-invent themselves as citizens in a society which not only seems foreign, but which can be openly discriminatory towards them.


Picture Credit: Otofun

North Korean teens have had a delayed start in exposure to the fashion and pop culture that their South Korean counterparts typically spend a great deal of time and energy on. But they do want to catch up and fit in. An interesting finding in the KEDI survey was that 84 per cent of the young people thought of South Korea as a great country. Perhaps then the negativity about their citizenship of South Korea is less about what South Korea represents, and more down to how well North Korean teens are able to bring their own identity in line with that of young South Koreans.

The answer in helping these vulnerable youngsters to adjust may not be in more programmes which compound the feeling that they are “charity cases” and a distinct “out crowd.” The current practice of putting many North Korean students in special schools which limit socialisation with young South Koreans, while also trying to teach a curriculum on “how to be a South Korean”, doesn’t serve to build self-esteem through appreciation of diversity.

Recognition of past experience and acceptance of personal value is vital for any individual to feel they belong, especially during their teens. Continuing to see assimilation as the method of successful integration will always leave a disillusioned minority behind. Perhaps the South Korean government needs to take a second look at its “parenting” strategy.

“The earlier this kind of interaction takes place, before they are fully exposed the prejudices of adulthood, the better.”

Studies show that young North Korean defectors have experienced greater success at self-reinvention and passing themselves off as South Koreans than their older counterparts, given sufficient time and effort. Just as teenagers inevitably work through their angst, put it behind them and move into adulthood, so these teenagers will also grow up and find their place in the world. It’s up to the government and agencies involved in their settlement to facilitate this process in a way that makes them feel supported and valued for who they are. Creating opportunities for North and South Korean teens to socialise with each other on equal terms, while uncomfortable at first, may be more helpful for mutual recognition and appreciation of each other than segregating them. It might also encourage them to envision a shared future. The earlier this kind of interaction takes place, before they are fully exposed the prejudices of adulthood, the better.

North Korean defectors are continuing to come to the South, and with greater numbers will come more socialisation. This will make the distinguishing features of North Koreans harder to gloss over, supress or deny. Time is needed, along with patience and a real expectation of growing pains – these are part of the process. Recognising young North Koreans for their individual value as people with as much to offer as other members of the national community, will go a long way to seeing them mature into contented citizens of a more tolerant, diverse South Korea.

Picture credit: Otofun

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About the Author

Sarah A. Son

Sarah Son is an NK NEWS columnist and a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where she specialises in inter-Korean affairs.