There are about 15,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea. That number is steadily growing. Most of them left the communist North to escape hunger, severe deprivation and political repression. Starting a new life in the advanced, capitalist South is daunting - especially when it comes to getting an education. VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin traveled to a special school that is trying to level the playing field of opportunity for North Korean arrivals.
The bell rings and uniformed students hurry to their next lesson. It looks like a typical South Korean school day. But, here, there are some big differences.
None of the students attending classes here were born in South Korea. All of them fled - at one point or another - from North Korea. They are among thousands of North Koreans who have arrived in South Korea after making an illegal border crossing into China - where they arranged passage here, often via travel brokers who operate in secret. The process is usually dangerous and traumatizing.
Because of the communist North's isolation and poverty, they have enjoyed few if any of the learning opportunities South Korean children take for granted. Because of food shortages, they are noticeably smaller than South Koreans. Even using their native language is hard, because the South's version of Korean has borrowed so many words from other countries, over the decades.
So here, at the Hankyoreh Middle and High School in the South Korean town, Anseong, they get special attention. The students eat, sleep and study on campus. Security is kept tight.
It is South Korea's only publically-administered school exclusively for North Korean defectors. Principal Kwak Jong-moon says it is designed to meet every need - not just academics.
He says the basic goal is to acclimate the North Koreans to the very different culture and society of South Korea. The school provides psychological counseling to help the students attain emotional stability. He says a range of medical treatment is also available.
Most of the North Korean students have lost one or both parents or have left family members behind in the North. Kwak says the school does the best it can to fill that void.
He says teachers live with students, in the dormitories, and become a reassuring presence, just like like mothers and fathers. He says they can sometimes even be better, because they can keep teaching the students after school, which many parents cannot do.
The students' curriculum includes everything from history to English to digital-media technology. They also play sports - from badminton . . .. to traditional Asian swordplay.
Students in a drama class have been rehearsing a play called "You Are Not Alone." Drama teacher Lee Do-ran says the young North Koreans appreciate the chance to act out the challenges of starting their new lives.
She says the culture shock North Korean defectors experience, when they first arrive in the South, can sometimes lead to conflict. She says the play deals with that and with other problems faced by all young people.
Back in the dormitories, at night, the North Korean students say they spend much of their free time talking about life back home and their hopes of returning, one day. Twenty-one-year-old student Kim Kyung-ha says her life at Hankyoreh has helped her see the South differently.
She says, when she watched South Korean television in China, it looked as though everyone in the South was one big family. But she was disappointed to find that people here can be very cold. However, she says the teachers at this school are a big exception.
Kim and most of the other students are not expected to graduate formally from Hankyoreh. Instead, they will transition to regular South Korean schools when their teachers feel they are emotionally and academically ready for that challenge.