Editor’s note: NK News contacted the South Korean Ministry of Unification, which is authorized to speak on behalf of Hanawon, as to whether or not the program has been updated to reflect concerns such as those Ji-Min expresses here.
Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week Mike from the U.S. asks:
Would you please tell me about your time at Hanawon?
Honestly, I don’t have good memories of Hanawon, the place where defectors have to go before they enter South Korean society.
Hanawon, which is located in Anseong, Gyeonggi province, is an up-to-date, modern facility. As Hanawon is located in a small rural village, it was quiet and away from the noise of the big city and I liked the atmosphere there. Hanawon is a facility under the South Korean Ministry of Unification, which exists to help newly arrived North Koreans settle in capitalist South Korean society.
When a North Korean newly arrives in South Korea, they spend their first three months at Hanawon, where they learn how capitalist South Korean society works. Of course, three months is such a short period of time and it is not long enough to develop an overall understanding of capitalism and South Korean society. But it is certain that these first three months are crucial for newly arrived North Koreans.
North Koreans have spent their entire lives in the so-called socialist state, which says it strives to provide equal opportunities for everyone. Capitalism is something totally new and unfamiliar to North Koreans. To North Koreans, capitalist society is full of mystery, opportunities as well as abundant obstacles. However, I learned almost nothing about capitalism from Hanawon.
Hanawon had been established only a few years prior to my arrival in South Korea. I would like to think that Hanawon provides better education now as it is likely to have gone through trial and error over the years.
The main thing Hanawon teaches is basically how to survive and get a job in South Korea. They taught us how to look for a job, interview skills and such, all of which I think are highly important and useful to North Koreans.
But I remember Hanawon missing out on one important thing it needs to provide North Korean refugees: It needs to teach North Koreans the problems and discrimination North Koreans will face, as well as how they can overcome them.
WE ARE THE 99%
While at Hanawon, successful North Koreans came to give presentations and make speeches for us. They were North Koreans who went on to become successful businessmen, the branch manager of a major bank and famous human rights activists. We were all mesmerized by their success and we dreamed about our successful futures, too. Of course, there is no doubt that you can get what you want if you make enough efforts in the capitalist, democratic societies. But it would’ve been a lot more helpful if Hanawon gave us an insight into the failures and frustrations 99 percent of North Koreans experience rather than focusing on 1 percent of them who achieved success. I really wish Hanawon showed us the failures, obstacles and discrimination North Koreans most often face.
The reality that North Korean refugees face after those three months in Hanawon is harsh. Obviously, discrimination exists and there is very little we can do since we received very little knowledge and education in North Korea.
I noticed that South Korea was a highly individualistic society where you don’t know who lives next door and you shouldn’t try to find out, either
We are put under immense stress and fear while in China. But the only thing that kept me going was the will to survive. When I finally began to settle in South Korea, I noticed that South Korea was a highly individualistic society where you don’t know who lives next door and you shouldn’t try to find out, either. In South Korea, you should always be cautious of strangers who do you favors and you could be sued for swearing at someone else, all of which is inconceivable to North Koreans.
During my three months at Hanawon, we went on an excursion to numerous industrial complexes and I dreamt big about my future. But South Korean society turned out to be one harsh world to live in. It was where everyone was connected based on the education and hometown backgrounds. In other words, you get promoted not based on your accomplishments but just because you happen to have attended the same college with your boss or you happen to be from the same hometown as them.
I have nothing to complain about from my time at Hanawon. It was comfortable to stay there for three months and it wasn’t disappointing, either. I just wish that Hanawon let us know about the obstacles North Koreans face, as well as the successful stories of North Koreans. It would dramatically reduce the frustration and disappointment North Koreans feel later on. Having success in the capitalist society is important. But far more important is not being a failure. I hope that Hanawon provides more realistic and practical education and training for newly arrived North Koreans.
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Translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Catherine Salkeld
Editor's note: NK News contacted the South Korean Ministry of Unification, which is authorized to speak on behalf of Hanawon, as to whether or not the program has been updated to reflect concerns such as those Ji-Min expresses here.