In the first few decades of the split between North and South Korea, there was little movement between the two countries. Very few defected, and these were mostly men and soldiers, who were referred to as ‘defecting warriors.’
But since the mid-1990s this number of refugees has been rapidly increasing and most are not soldiers, but women, children, and young adults.
According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, in 1998, a total of 947 defectors entered the South, with 12% being women. In September of 2016, in contrast, the number of North Korean refugees living in South Korea is almost 30,000, with 70% being women.
Young defectors have difficulty adapting for diverse reasons. The biggest are social and cultural differences in South Korean society, and many schools established for the social integration of North Korean refugee youth are not effective.
According to an article in Hankyoreh, of 56 youths surveyed, 42.9% said they stopped studying for “immigration reasons”, followed by long-term absences (23.2%), career change (21.4%), and school maladjustment (8.9%).
The number of North Korean refugees in elementary and junior high schools, too, which was 966 in 2008, nearly doubled to 1992 at the end of 2012.
In addition, more than half of North Korean refugees are “school-aged.” According to a 2015 article in Edaily: “About half of the North Korean refugees who attended high school were older than the age of school or grade who were below their age.”
According to 2004 Unification Ministry data, it takes roughly three years for North Korean refugees to get to South Korea after leaving North Korea. Their experiences during this period can have a profound effect on the psychological and emotional state of North Korean children and adolescents.
Stress in hiding one’s identity can act as a psychological block in making friends
BRAVE NEW WORLD
Migrating from North Korea is hard: there isn’t a wide range understanding and tolerance about their situation in South Korean society.
Many defectors feel that they will be discriminated against because they came from North Korea, and many hide their true background. According to a survey of 79 adolescents who entered South Korea from 2000 to 2003, 74.6% of the respondents were known by classmates to be from North Korea.
However, 81.8% were outed as defectors through a teacher’s introduction as soon as they entered school, with only 18.2% of the respondents saying they spoke voluntarily. 66.7% of girls, too, did not say where they were from.
Stress in hiding one’s identity can act as a psychological block in making friends, with anxiety that his or her true identity will be revealed. As a result, it can be very difficult for North Korean teens to form relationships with peers in South Korea, which can eventually lead to school dropouts.
According to a study of the level of education of 75 North Korean refugees in 2004, from the fifth grade of elementary school to the third grade of junior high school in Seoul, the decline of middle school students was worse than that of elementary school students. In particular, more than 80% of middle school students failed math.
Since they have difficulty studying and making friends in school, many North Korean refugee teenagers are abandoned or dropped out of school.
According to data from the Ministry of Education, the defector enrollment rate for middle school is 57.9%, while the enrollment rate for high school is only 10.9%. For South Koreans, high school enrollment rate is 98%, and the university admission rate is close to 80%.
Given that South Korean society is such a scholastically centered society, the low educational status of North Korean defectors will become a big obstacle to their future social life. According to the Ministry of Education, only 4.8% of school-aged adolescents attending public schools studying with South Korean students their own age: 75% differed by more than two years, and, in the most extreme cases, six years.
Many defectors feel that they are discriminated against because they came from North Korea
For North Korean teenagers who have difficulty in adapting to the general school, the government has established a number of alternative schools as a new policy project.
The most well-known of these is the “Hankyoreh High School,” a high school specializing in helping North Korean adolescents, founded by the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development in 2006.
The Hankyoreh School teaches the national common curriculum, but individual classes are conducted according to the level of each student.
One North Korean settler, speaking to the author, now studies in college in Seoul. He escaped from North Korea in his mid-teens, were caught by Chinese police and sent back to North Korea, lived in a detention camp, and escaped again in five years. It took about three years to come to Korea through China and Central Asia. When he arrived, it was difficult to start regular school.
He studied for two years at the GED Academy and entered one of the well-known colleges in Korea and studies Political Science. In the case of the North Korean refugee students, the GED is sometimes more efficient than public school in preparation for college admission.
It seems that the education currently being given to North Koreans by the South Korean government is often purely based on their survival, lacking consideration of their human worth or dignity. Education does not include content that allows them to live in harmony with the general public, and the lack of effective policy to solve this is a major problem.
With a growing number of defectors in South Korea, the need for clarity on this issue is critical. For defectors to retain their identity without being discriminated against and without discrimination in society, experts from both the government and society must work harder to help them.