Accessibility links

Videos Document Difficulties N. Korean Youths Encounter in South


For North Koreans who succeed in leaving their country to move to South Korea, building a new life can be a struggle. The shock of life in a robustly capitalist society is often compounded by alienation, and sometimes hostility expressed by South Koreans.

A young North Korean girl named Young Ok places a call from Seoul to her homeland, but there is no one on the other end of the line.

This is the premise of a short documentary film called No Answer. In it, Young Ok narrates footage of her new life in South Korea, in the form of an imaginary telephone message she is leaving for a North Korean boyfriend.

Young Ok says she is struggling in school in the South, even though she was one of the best students in North Korea.

The film was made by real North Korean defectors attending a special school tailored to their needs in Seoul. Their South Korean teacher, Kim Geon, who supervised the film project, says it is not uncommon for young North Korean defectors to have a hard time in the classroom.

Kim Geon says young North Koreans have often missed five or six years of education. He says a 17-year-old, for example, may have the academic capacity of a 10-year-old.

There are more than 7,000 North Korean defectors living in the South, and more than a 1,000 of them are under the age of 19. Because of severe deprivation in the communist North, they are often noticeably shorter and less physically developed than their South Korean classmates. As a result, many young North Koreans say they experience teasing or exclusion.

Many young defectors arrive already traumatized by the ordeal of making their way to the South. The journey is most commonly started by entering China illegally, where refugees face the constant threat of being caught and sent home. A second documentary made by young North Koreans, called Long Journey South, offers a glimpse of this experience.

In this clip, a young North Korean girl describes how she hid and watched Chinese authorities arrest her uncle and father as they were attempting to defect.

The French-based humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders, commonly known by its French initials MSF, has said that as many as half of North Korean defectors experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their flight to the South.

Lee Ha-young, a South Korean working with Doctors Without Borders as a psychological counselor for young North Koreans, says it is common for them to have bad dreams, anxiety, and difficulty concentrating.

She says North Korean defectors often find refuge from everyday reality through addictive behavior, such as gambling or compulsive computer gaming. She says some become violent - a possible warning they may turn to criminal behavior in the future.

Kim Geon, the film teacher at the school for North Korean defectors, says the children pose a special challenge for educators.

He says teachers have to work to win the young North Koreans' trust. But he says teachers must avoid the temptation to help the children too much, so that they can learn to survive independently.

One household here in Seoul functions almost as a school in itself.

This is dinnertime at the Dari Community, a private household that receives financial assistance from various charities. More than 20 young North Korean defectors live here, most of them teenagers, and all either orphans or separated from their parents. They treat each other as members of a family, pitching in with chores and helping each other with homework.

The name "Dari" means "bridge." The head of the household, Lee Young-seok, is affectionately known to the children as "Uncle." Although the children receive special attention at home, Lee sends them to regular South Korean schools so they can learn to integrate.

Lee says he had to do something to help North Korean children when he became aware of how much despair they faced. He says the children feel lucky to be in South Korea, but are still reluctant to reveal to other people that they are from the North.

The number of young North Koreans here is increasing, and South Korean public policy experts warn that the defectors' failure to integrate increases the possibility that they will have problems for years in adapting to their new lives, getting jobs and becoming part of the society in the South.

XS
SM
MD
LG