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South Korean Training Center Reorients North Koreans to Life in Freedom

South Korea is coping with an ever-increasing influx of North Korean refugees - people who took enormous risks and endured intense suffering to escape their homeland. After they arrive in the South, the North Koreans attend a special training facility, which recently celebrated an important milestone.

North Korean defector Kim Cheol-Woong plays a stirring rendition of Arirang, a centuries-old folk song beloved in both the North and South halves of the divided peninsula.

He is one of more than 16,000 North Koreans now living in South Korea.

Most have come since the mid-1990s, fleeing political repression and famine at home. Officials say about 3,000 more are arriving each year.

Their first stop in South Korea is here: the Hanawon training center, which recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of its founding. South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek used the occasion to offer the media a rare glimpse within its gates.

"Hanawon soothes the pain and anxiety of North Korean escapees, and brings them hope. I want to express sincere gratitude to everyone at Hanawon, in celebration of 10 years of committment," In-taek said.

Hanawon is kept under extremely tight security. If North Korean authorities were to learn the identities of the refugees here, their family members back home could face severe punishment. This is why their faces cannot be shown on camera.

Hanawon's first task is to heal some of the defectors' inner wounds. Most have come here after a dangerous and illegal journey through China.

Tears flow freely from Hanawon trainees as a fellow defector reads a letter she wishes she could send to her sister back in the North.

"When I came here to Hanawon, I met a man from home, and he gave me the news our parents had died," a self-described defector said. "I pray every night you will forgive this unfilial daughter - who has not been able to put even a single cup of water on your memorial shrine ... Whenever I think of you, my heart is ripped into 10,000 pieces, and I often wake up suddenly in the dark."

Jeon Jin-young is a psychiatrist at Hanawon. He says the new arrivals require a lot of medical attention.

"I'm a psychiatrist, so I focus on their stress and mental illness. But beyond that, they have a lot [of] dental problems due to what seems to be low awareness and scarce supplies for dental health in the North," Jin-young said. "There are also a lot of female defectors of child-bearing age with obstetrical issues - not to mention diet issues related to malnutrition in North Korea."

The very youngest North Korean arrivals are raised in Hanawon's daycare center. Older arrivals are put through a curriculum designed to expose them to South Korean culture, so radically different from their own.

They get to explore various religious faiths, and learn practical skills like using computers and handling money.

Hanawon trainees realize they will even have to re-learn Korean - as the South's version is brimming with words borrowed from English, Japanese, and other languages.

"I am looking forward to seeing South Korean society as soon as possible," a trainee said. "But first I think it's important to learn about it, since I am almost completely ignorant about the South's system."

"If you study hard, it will be OK," another trainee states. "It only gets hard when you think it's hard. There are language barriers. But as time goes by, your level of sincerity about learning determines whether it is easy or hard."

Hanawon is a second home for North Korean escapees. It helps them become true South Korean citizens, and prepares them for the day reunification becomes a reality.

South Korea says it will expand Hanawon by building a similar center next year. The government has already opened several "Hana centers" to support refugees once they are living on their own.