When South Koreans hear “defectors,” they usually think of Koreans that speak the same language, albeit with the distinctive North Korean dialect. So when you visit a school for defector children in the South, you might wonder why more than half now speak in Chinese.
“My name is Chun-mi, and in Chinese pronunciation, it’s Chun Mei (春美),” says one student at the Durihana International School, an alternative school for defector children in Seoul.
Chun-mi is the 17-year-old child of Su-jin Joo, who defected from North Korea 23 years ago, and she was born in China.
Out of the roughly 30,000 North Korean refugees residing in South Korea, 71 percent are women. For most of them, the process of defecting takes a long time: anything from six months to eight years if things are delayed.
Many of them marry Chinese men after being sold by brokers. Chun-mi’s mother was one of those who chose to cross the Tumen river. Though she was aware of human trafficking in the border areas, she believed life in China would be better than life in the North, where she languished in poverty.
Growing up in the Chinese province of Henan before coming to South Korea two years ago, Chun-mi never knew her mother was from North Korea.
“Her accent was bit different, but I just thought it would be that she came somewhere far in China,” Chun-mi says. “I never knew there was a country called North Korea.”
“I came to South Korea in 2015 but it was in 2016 – the time I started to speak Korean – when I first found out there is North Korea.”
Adjusting to life in South Korea can be even more challenging than it is for those who directly came from the North
Pastor Chun Gi-won of the Durihana Mission, who has been helping defector families including Chun-mi and her mother, says that many third-country-born children grow up not knowing that one or both of their parents are defectors.
“They would not know unless their mothers tell them,” Chun tells NK News. “However, most of the defector mothers hide where they are originally from and how they were trafficked to forcibly get married, which is why their children do not know they are defectors.”
The number of third-country-born children in South Korea is increasing, with the number of those currently enrolled in South Korean schools now outnumbering young North Korean defectors, representing 1317 out of 2517 students enrolled – 52.3% – at the end of December 2016, according to the MOU.
With the increase in the number of North Korean refugee families with children born in third countries, the South Korean government has extended the one-time grant of KRW4 million (USD$3482.04 at the time of publication) for defectors to those born outside the peninsula.
Though the new policy is notable progress in the welfare provided to the growing number of third-country born North Koreans in South Korea, it seems educational support is more urgent, especially when it comes to language and culture.
“I never knew there was a country called North Korea”
For children not born in the North or the South, adjusting to life in South Korea can be even more challenging than it is for those who directly come from the DPRK: they have to learn a completely different language and culture at the same time.
“I do not feel that I am from the same country when I see South Korean people,” Chun-mi says. “In China, if I see people on the street, I just smile and talk and it is so natural, but in South Korea, if I just look at people on the street, they would think I am weird.”
Since many defector mothers have no choice but to spend most of their time working for a living and away from their children, kids like Chun-mi often feel isolated in a totally new country, Pastor Chun explains.
“The children get more stress after coming to South Korea,” Pastor Chun says. “When they were in China they were able to talk and have friends but after they came to South Korea in the hope that they now would live with their moms who they were desperate to see, they find the reality is not like that.”
Like many of the children of defector families, Chun-mi has often been left home alone waiting for her mother, who has run a restaurant since last year.
The loneliness and pressure Chun-mi had been going through, she says, was not noticed by teachers and friends, and not even by her mother, and led to her attempting to take her own life by jumping from a balcony.
The incident saw Chun-mi diagnosed as paraplegic, with a doctor saying it was not likely that she would walk again.
Defying expectations, however, she is walking again, and her life in South Korea had dramatically changed. Receiving attention and care from her mother, friends, and teachers made her feel loved and she has since become more outspoken.
“The children get more stress after coming to South Korea”
The media attention on her story saw her talent for painting be recognized by educators and opened up new opportunities to study painting abroad, in Germany and the U.S.
“I just draw paintings when I feel lonely and have nothing to do, and when I draw, I just don’t think of anything but draw things,” Chun-mi says.
After Chun-mi’s story was broadcast on TV, her paintings were also introduced in an exhibition in Zehlendorf (Berlin) on September 10, by DAMSO Galerie & Teehaus, a private gallery in Berlin.
Many third-country-born children in South Korea, though they often do not know about the division of the peninsula before coming to the South, see both Koreas as home.
“After I came to South Korea, I once went to the border area with my mom,” she says. “It was New Year’s Day and my mom was looking at North, towards her hometown there. I could feel her nostalgia.”
“I just draw paintings when I feel lonely”
Chun-mi was awarded the grand prize at 18th “Happy Peaceful Unification Writing and Painting Competition,” for her painting of the Mugunghwa (South Korea’s national flower), the Korean peninsula, and tiger posing with victory hand gesture.
“My mother is also a North Korean and my friends also came from the North,” Chun-mi says. “I really want to see unification since I know how my mother and friends feel… I wish the two Koreas could be united.”
Edited by: Oliver Hotham
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