On February 7, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MOU) announced a new support program for defectors, with a one-time subsidy of 4,000,000 KRW ($3457.60 at the time of publication) to be handed out to the parents of North Koreans living in the South.
But this money was intended for a specific kind of defector family, those with children not born in either the North or the South: parents raising what have become known as “third-country-born” North Koreans.
It’s easy to forget that, amid high-profile defections which can take only a few months, that, in general, the process takes a long time. Arriving in the South after leaving the North can take anywhere from 6 months to eight years if things are delayed.
This means that the number of defectors having children in third countries – most commonly China, Russia, North East or South East Asia – is on the rise.
As a result, the South Korean government increasingly needs to create a welfare system tailored to these children and their educational needs.
Most readers will be well aware of North Korean defectors, and the multitude of difficulties they face when they arrive in South Korea, but the concept of third-country-born children of defectors remains not well understood.
Today, however, the number of third-country-born children of North Korean defectors currently enrolled in South Korean schools outnumbers (as of the end of December 2016, according to the MOU) young North Korean defectors, representing 1317 out of 2517 students enrolled, accounting for 52.3%.
Third-country-born children have different dispositions from young North Korean defectors, and their characters and working methods vary depending on their countries of birth, says Eum Hyae-mee, who works at the Yeomyung School in Myeong-dong, Seoul.
“For example, children from China have a tendency to yearn for ‘big’ things, from what I feel,” Eum tells NK News.
The Yeomyung School is one of three government-linked alternative schools for North Koreans: Hangyeore High School, in Anseong and Heavenly Dream School, in Seongnam, are the other two.
Ms. Eum joined Yeomyung School in August 2015, taking charge of a special class for third-country-born children.
The number of third-country-born children of North Korean defectors currently enrolled in South Korean schools outnumbered young North Korean defectors in 2016
Eum also says third-country-born children are more disciplined and thus have less difficulty adjusting to South Korean education systems.
This is because, unlike defectors straight from the North, they have usually been through more orthodox education than their North Korean-born contemporaries.
GAPS IN THE SYSTEM
This means that third-country born North Koreans are used to adjusting to different social and education systems.
“Third-country-born children have had healthy relationships with friends and teachers in each country before coming to South Korea,” Eum says. “There could be some who find adapting [to South Korean systems] somewhat difficult, but this is not the general case.”
“For third-country-born children, learning Korean is more about learning Korean identity”
For third-country-born children, the most difficult part is learning Korean, which is often not their first language. Eum says that the real problem is the lack of a unique “teaching methods for third-country-born children.”
The National Institute of the Korean language has published special Korean textbooks for members of multicultural families in South Korea.
Eum says, however, these textbooks are not suitable for third-country-born children because even though the boundaries are blurred, the students do not precisely fall into the category of children of multicultural families.
“These textbooks for members of multicultural families can help them learn Korean fast,” Eum says.
“But for third-country-born children, learning Korean is more about learning Korean identity and Korean education for third-country-born children has to include education of Korean history.”
DEFECTORS WITHOUT BORDERS
This is where it gets complex: many might think that children of North Korean defectors born in a third country, because Korean is not their native language, can be helped by education policies focused on multicultural families and international marriages by Koreans.
But these are multicultural families with a difference: their mothers or fathers are refugees, not immigrants. As a result, they should be entitled to all the benefits that other North Korean defectors receive from the South Korean government.
With the MOU’s announcement of the new enforcement ordinance on February 7, North Korean families with children born in third countries in South Korea are now able to receive the same level of financial support from the government as families who are all born in the North.
Eum says she hopes educational support will be extended, too, in the near future.
“I feel there’s a bond of sympathy between these children and me, which I would not have felt if their mothers were from other countries, not North Korea,” Eum says.
“I hope we can create an environment where third-country-born children can live with confidence as Koreans.”
Featured image: NK News
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