Identity Check

Escape From Dear Leader to My Classroom in Seoul

By Samuel Songhoon Lee
Sunday, April 1, 2007

Editor's Note: At the author's request, has removed the names of the students that appeared in the original print version.


At a small restaurant in late February, my student and I ate spicy noodle soup and stared at a huge TV showing the extravagant celebration of Kim Jong Il's 65th birthday in Pyongyang. Thousands of smiling people paraded across the North Korean capital and saluted their Dear Leader.

"I was once there," my student said. "But even as I danced and smiled, I knew of a better life outside." She said this matter-of-factly and turned to stir her tea. Her search for that better life had brought her here, at age 13, to Seoul, and to my English class at a special school for young North Korean defectors.

The school has more than two dozen students, members of a growing contingent of North Koreans who have deserted that communist country since famines in the mid-1990s killed more than 2 million people. According to South Korea's Ministry of Unification, 41 North Korean defectors arrived in South Korea in 1995. The number increased to 312 in 2000, and to 1,383 in 2005, many of them young people.

It isn't easy for these young defectors to fit into South Korean schools and fill the gaps in their education. Most schools here don't offer transition courses on the differences in language and culture. But catching up with schoolwork is only one problem they face.

In South Korea, a country that withstood centuries of invasions from its Chinese and Japanese neighbors, unity defines survival. And without ethnic diversity or a history of immigration, unity means conformity. When something becomes fashionable here, it can have significant consequences. For example, South Korea has the world's highest ratio of cosmetic surgeons to citizens, catering to the legions of girls who receive eyelid surgery as a present for their 16th birthday. This culture of unity and conformity is vastly different from the one I experienced growing up Korean American in New York, Denver and Seattle. The lack of diversity at school makes the young defectors instant standouts -- subject to 15 minutes of fame and adulation, then an enduring period of isolation. When their peers ask about their accent -- noticeably different from what's common in Seoul -- most students say they're from Gangwon Province, in the northeastern part of the country.

Facing ostracism from South Korean students, many young North Korean defectors drop out of school. According to a ministry report in 2005, 43 percent of young defectors were attending school, and 29 percent had dropped out of middle and high schools. Almost half of the 198 young defectors still attending school said that they hid their background from classmates, according to a survey by the National Human Rights Commission.

"Don't expect them to be like us just because they look Korean and speak Korean," the principal told me on the orientation day for volunteer teachers at School 34, an independent school for defectors. "Treat them like foreigners, but with respect."

I was assigned to teach two English classes to students ages 15 to 27. When I introduced myself, they were as puzzled and curious about me as I was about them. An oversized Korean American with big Sony headphones -- was I really one of them?

Taking the principal's advice, I made it clear from the start that I was not, and that I probably could not understand the obstacles they had to overcome to reach the free world. Many feel deeply betrayed by Kim and the propaganda they were forced to learn. But they have achieved a surprising distance from their painful past. They share memories -- which include watching public executions and boiling grass to eat in times of famine -- as if they were reciting folk tales with a sense of wonder and humor.

Among my students, one young man stood out because of his motivation to learn English. His family is still in North Korea, and he wants to earn the $15,000 in payoffs it would take to get them to Seoul. Numerous underground railroads established by brokers in China make rescuing family members from North Korea possible, he told me -- if one has the money. "I can work hard for two years and make that money. But I will lag behind in my study. Then what can I do even if my family were to come here?" he said.

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