In 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush signed into law the North Korean Human Rights Act, which was subsequently reauthorized in 2008 and again in 2012. Among other things, this act made North Korean refugees eligible for political asylum in the United States.
Due to factors such as having a shared language, similar cultures and relative proximity, the vast majority of North Korean defectors who have been granted asylum select to resettle in South Korea, where they undergo intensive training at the Hanawon facility and receive cash stipends from the South Korean government.
However, the number of North Korean defectors opting to settle in the United States has been on the increase. In 2006, the first group of nine arrived but as of 2014, this number had increased to 171, with more than 40 arriving after the latest reauthorization of the North Korean Human Rights Act. Defectors, when settling in new countries, often face difficulties due to the stark contrasts in society, employment and culture between their new home and their old one. ENoK, a Chicago based non-profit, seeks to provide resettlement services to North Korean defectors, including education, training and preparation.
ENoK runs a program called Empower House that provides housing, cultural immersion and tutoring services for a select number of young North Korean refugees who have been granted asylum in the United States. Ultimately, the end goal of Empower House is for participants to receive acceptance at four-year colleges and universities, allowing them not just to settle but to advance in their new, chosen society.
Andrew Hong, founder and president of ENoK, told NK News that North Korean defectors in the U.S. face a number of challenges – from a deficit in English skills to the number of choices in a capitalist society to a tough (and unexpected) struggle with math – but that Empower House’s qualified staff work with the goal of getting them into four-year colleges.
NK News: In your experience, what have been the greatest challenges faced by North Korean defectors trying to resettle in the United States?
Hong: The biggest challenges faced by North Korean defectors trying to resettle in the United States are: 1) the long time that they have to wait in Thailand or another country until they are admitted to America; 2) the language barrier; 3) their lack of knowledge about different government programs that they are eligible for in the early stages of their resettlement; and 4) the freedom of choice and the responsibility that follows this freedom, which they are not used to.
The defectors, in order to enter the U.S., must wait about one year, often confined in a jail-like space. Many give up waiting and end up changing their destination to South Korea, the entrance into which can take as short a period as a couple of weeks. Granted, the U.S. State Department has many refugee applications to review, and it is important that they go through this process carefully for national security (purposes). From a perspective of a North Korean defector, one year of confinement is a great challenge, and thus, greater efficiency in the process without loss of diligence would greatly be appreciated.
The obvious challenge to an immigrant from a non-English speaking country applies to North Korean defectors, perhaps to a greater extent than even their Southern counterparts because most likely they did not receive as much training in English as South Koreans before leaving their country.
‘I have seen too many North Korean refugees who never received these benefits or services just because they were never aware of them’
North Korean defectors who enter the U.S. as legal refugees normally receive automatic benefits (food stamps, stipends, Medicaid, etc.) for the first eight months after their entry. However, even after this period, they are often eligible for many government programs only if they knew and were able to fill out the necessary paperwork by themselves. Community service organizations and other government agencies exist to help refugees with this, but I have seen too many North Korean refugees who never received these benefits or services just because they were never aware of them. In America, each individual is left on his or her own to seek any information that one needs or wants, but to a North Korean, who has lived all one’s life in a socialist state like North Korea, this is a daunting task, so somebody needs to be available before they can ask, and this is one of the areas that ENoK tries to fill the gap in by informing the defectors under our care and helping them fill out various applications.
The challenge does not end in having people available to tell them what is out there. Another problem, that is in a way opposite of the problem discussed above, is that normally North Korean defectors are not used to the breadth of options that they can take living in this new country. Once they enter the U.S., North Korean defectors interact with people from many different backgrounds and with their own opinions. Naturally, they will hear different advice, and I have seen many refugees who make a decision (such as picking up a job versus studying) based on only a narrow picture–in most cases, this means more money. Most people offer them something with good intentions, but without the whole picture of the refugees’ lives in mind, particularly in the long run. This often leads the defectors to spend the first few years in America hopping from one job to another with no clear direction in their mind in the end. Having lived in a socialist state for their entire lives, the defectors are not used to having many choices, and thus, they are not used to making cost-benefit assessments of different options, which results in their choosing the path that yields the most immediate results, but not necessarily the best path.
NK News: What services does ENoK provide for North Korean defectors in the United States that other resettlement programs do not?
Hong: ENoK provides the defectors in our programs with what we call Korean-style tutoring services and college counseling services. The majority of staff and volunteers at ENoK are bilingual undergraduate or graduate students who are well-versed in learning English as a foreign language and in preparing for post-secondary education in the States. Armed with such expertise, ENoK provides defectors with academic services, which would cost well above $500 per week in South Korea, free of charge. Our Empower House is like a mini-boarding school, and the in-house supervisors have an extensive knowledge of how a boarding school should be run with a decade-long experience of attending boarding schools.
NK News: In what ways does ENoK provide retraining and re-education for participants in its Empower House project?
Hong: Largely, there are two ongoing programs offered by ENoK to North Korean defectors. First, RealPal is a mentoring program where each defector is matched with a volunteer. They normally meet once a week, either in person or online, to study English or other academic subjects. Secondly, Empower House, first opened last fall, is a more comprehensive program in which defectors are invited to live with each other in “Empower House” where they spend one or two years to close the academic gap required for them to pursue higher education. All living necessities are provided for by this program. All that is required of the defectors in this program is to have a clear set goal in partaking in this program, study their hardest and follow house rules.
NK News: Have you noticed any gaps between North Korean defector students who received their education in North Korea and students who have received western-style educations? If so, can you comment on what the biggest gaps are?
‘… while many expect North Korean defectors to be good at math just because of the Asian stereotype, the level of their math is often around third grade level’
Hong: The biggest gaps are in English grammar and vocabulary and math. It is interesting to see that there is a huge difference between international South Korean students (or immigrants) and North Korean defector students here in the U.S. South Korean students are often strong in grammar and have large vocabulary while they are weak in conversational English. However, North Korean defectors are often strong in conversational English, but they are weak in grammar and have small vocabulary. This most likely reflects the fact that North Koreans did not receive as much formal training in English as their Southern counterparts while North Korean defectors had to learn English in order to survive in their new country. Similarly, while many expect North Korean defectors to be good at math just because of the Asian stereotype, the level of their math is often around third grade level as they did not receive much consistent training in math. On the other hand, they are very quick in real-life situations such as when doing business, compared to South Korean students who have less experience in the real world.
NK News: What kinds of challenges these gaps pose and how can they be overcome?
Hong: At ENoK, for the first couple of months, we focus heavily on teaching grammar and expanding the students’ vocabulary. After that, we shift our focus to math, especially if the defectors need to pass the GED.
NK News: Can you tell us some success stories ENoK and Empower House have had? Can you tell us about some setbacks or ongoing challenges?
Hong: Empower House is still very young for us to have had major success stories or setbacks. Our students are making gradual but sure progress in both English and math. Some of them will begin their college applications this summer, and others will take the GED. We have been able to provide the participants with housing in good condition and abundance of food as well as help them file various applications. The demand is growing to join Empower House across the country, and we are trying our best to meet this demand, which is our greatest challenge at the moment.
NK News: What is the end goal for participants in Empower House? How will you measure whether or not they have succeeded? If ENoK is successful with this program, do you believe that it can be expanded to other cities, regions, or countries and be successful as well?
Hong: The first goals of Empower House participants vary depending on their prior education level, but for most of them, their end goals are acceptance into a four-year college, and ENoK plans to help seek funding for their college education when the time comes as well. We closely track each student’s progress by keeping a weekly evaluation/performance metrics sheet for each student. It is too early a stage right now to expand the program to other cities and regions, but it is definitely a possibility in the long term. Success in each place will depend largely on 1) the ability to raise funds to finance the expenses operating each House, and 2) the ability to recruit as many qualified and committed in-house supervisors and volunteers or have a few paid staff for each House.
NK News: The Empower House project heavily relies on volunteers from the University of Chicago. What have the volunteers’ responses been, and is there a large awareness on the University of Chicago campus about North Korean-related issues?
Hong: The volunteers expressed gratitude for the opportunity to serve and develop friendships with people whom they would have never met otherwise. I believe there is a growing awareness of North Korea-related issues on campus at the University of Chicago. For instance, this year’s annual culture show presented by Korean Student Organization had Empower House as a premise.
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