With longish hair, strategically torn jeans, and a thin frame wrapped in a blue sweatshirt, Dong Seok Kim easily blends in with any crowd of twenty-something Seoulites amid the noisy clutter of the city’s shops, restaurants and cafes. But lifting his shirt to reveal the scars inflicted by North Korean security officers, his origins as a Northerner become glaringly apparent.

Kim, whose name is an alias used to protect relatives in the North from being persecuted for his “crime” of leaving the country, is one of around 6,000 North Koreans in the South, according to the Korean Ministry of Unification, a South Korean government organization promoting peace between the two Koreas.

But unlike many of his countrymen, who are viewed as cultural dinosaurs from a nation at loggerheads with the South, Kim actually likes it in South Korea. That’s because he’s lucky enough to attend Yeomyung, one of only a handful of high schools for North Koreans. The school has created a sense of community, and, just as important, direction, for students who might otherwise become lost in an unwelcoming society.

“If I went to a normal school, I would never catch up,” he said. At 22, he is still learning the three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic. It’s a long way to go to reach his goals, but he’s pushing hard.

Catching up on education

Kim and many of his classmates headed off to China in their early teens to find food and are now catching up on years of missed education.

“In some cases students (upon arrival) can hardly write their names,” said Kee Sup Woo, the school’s headmaster, adding that propaganda is a major tenet of education in the Communist North, but that the school is working hard to improve basic skills.

Just getting through a day can be overwhelming for these products of the North’s cradle-to-grave welfare state. Most, for example, did not even know what a bank was before arriving.

“They are coming from places that were very isolated and they arrived in South Korea, one of the most modern societies on the planet,” said Joel Charny of Refugees International, a non-governmental organization.

Some students went through the South Korean school system before coming to Yeomyung. “In the beginning they get a lot of attention, but they later become ‘wang ta,'” or targets of bullying, said headmaster Kee Sup Woo. To South Korean youth, immersed in pop culture and high-tech gadgetry and computer games, North Koreans can come across as comical yokels.

“That whole ‘Korean brotherhood’ talk is a feel-good display by both governments,” said Brendan Brown, a volunteer teacher at Yeomyung, of the often-heard statements regarding attempts to show solidarity between the two countries. “(It) really doesn’t extend to North Korean refugees who make it to the South.”

HIDDEN FACES: Three North Korea students eating
lunch with their teacher.
Yeo Myoung school has a strict policy against journalistic
photographs of students’ faces, fearing students’ family
members still in North Korea could be persecuted for their
relatives’ “crime” of leaving the country.

But since Kim attends a school where teachers undergo cultural sensitivity training to address students’ unique needs, his South Korean experience has been free of the isolation that defines so many of the lives of his Northern countrymen. “I’ve had a lot of help,” he said, pointing out that seniors help their junior classmates, a set-up not often found in hyper-competitive South Korean schools.

Indeed, as they dart from room to room between classes and chat by the copy machine, these students show a liveliness not often found on the grim faces of older North Koreans in Seoul. Charny says this is because they are in an environment that is trying to nurture them.

Twenty-three-year-old Hana Shin (not her real name) came directly to Yeomyung from China about a year ago, where she became a refugee after her entire family died of disease in North Korea while she was still a teenager. Eyes watering at the memory of her parents and sighing that she lives alone in a small apartment in Seoul, she is still optimistic.

“In North Korea I was locked in, I was brainwashed,” Shin said, echoing the sentiments of most of her peers.” Now I can get the education I want.”

Prior to arriving in the South, the recently-orphaned Shin had tried to scratch out a living selling fruit, moving around from rented room to rented room and facing constant harassment from North Korean police who would confiscate her fruit as unlawful capitalist contraband.

Deprived of a way to make a living, she eventually migrated to China with two friends, but ended up wandering around the border area in search of food, sometimes camping out, until being taken in by sympathetic ethnically Korean Chinese.

In spite of her bleak past, the well-dressed and jeweled Shin possesses that sassy liveliness that is so South Korean, laughing while saying that she likes speaking Korean with the handful of foreign volunteers, describing their rudimentary language skills as ‘kwi o wo yo,” or “cute.”

While my interpreter was on a break, Shin and I stood near a world map tacked to a wall in the school’s small lounge. Pointing to several countries in succession – France, Germany, Australia and others – I asked her in my passable but very basic Korean, “ka bonjok isoy yo?” meaning “have you been there?” She answered no, but plans to visit a good number of countries once she gets a job – something unthinkable just a few years ago, when she was focused only on survival.

Classmate Kim talked excitedly about his future. “I want to go to university and become a pastor,” he said, adding that he wants to help others, just as Christian missionaries helped him while he was a refugee in China.

Kim is upbeat and engaging, joking good-naturedly that if he finds out that I’ve disclosed certain off-the-record information he’s told me, he’ll jump on the next U.S.-bound plane and give me a good throttling.

To my untrained ear but later confirmed by my interpreter, his accent is pure Seoul – the result of an effort by teachers to rid students of what is in the South considered a bumpkin-like dialect that often makes Northerners the targets of discrimination. “Teachers try very hard to correct students’ accents,” Woo said.

The religious factor

Like most students at Yeomyung, both Kim and Shin are Christian converts. Shin still has moments of loneliness. But she said her religious experience, something she would have never had in North Korea, has helped her persevere.

“Some things I cannot tell to friends, I tell them to God,” she said, highlighting the high rate of religious conversion among North Korean refugees, as missionary groups play a leading role in aiding refugees in limbo in China (see sidebar story, “The Perilous Road to Seoul”).

Torture is another issue students have faced, and Woo said many students have post traumatic stress disorder. Kim said North Korean authorities hung him upside down by a rope after he was repatriated to North Korea (he later escaped again) and repeatedly poured hot pepper sauce down his nose. “I kept losing consciousness and waking up,” he said, unsure of how long it went on.

He believes this was a result of his conversion to Christianity. Crossing the border is illegal in North Korea, but Charny said the most severe punishment is reserved for those who have converted to Christianity while outside the country. Kim Jung-Il is revered as the North’s only object of worship, and Christian beliefs are viewed as a threat to his primacy.

Kim is one of the lucky ones. He said he doesn’t often reflect on his torture and is focused on the future. But headmaster Woo tells the story of one student who punched a gym teacher (before coming to Yeomyung) because the teacher forced him to do pushups as a punishment, which reminded the boy of his treatment by guards in a Chinese detention center.

Suspicion of teachers is something most students at Yeomyung have had to overcome.

“Teachers in North Korea are despised and distrusted,” said Brown, who says that North Korean teachers use children to spy on their parents, asking pupils questions like “does mommy read a little black book?” – referring to a bible, a punishable offense in the stringently atheist communist country. Brown said some new arrivals have seemed distrustful of him, but warmed up later on.

The emotional trauma

Many have long-term emotional issues to deal with after the long and dangerous journey from home, often consisting of years of ducking police, human traffickers and paid informants.

North Korean refugee women are often sold into sexual slavery by smugglers who’ve taken them across the border – this usually is in the form of a forced marriage to a Chinese farmer but in more extreme cases North Korean women can end up in a brothel.

While the South Korean government provides monetary assistance, subsidized education and psychological counseling, some experts say that’s not enough. “It reflects a reality that a lot of South Koreans are not really welcoming to North Koreans,” Charny said.

The Ministry of Unification said the government is doing what it can to integrate them, but contends that Northerners are not the most adaptable bunch. Indeed, the North and South, despite a shared language and ethnicity, are polar opposites — the South an economic behemoth and the North as poor as many Southern African nations.

The South’s economic development, for example, has spawned a thriving film, TV and music industry. The so-called Korean Wave has become wildly popular in Japan and other Asian nations, and has made the South a trendsetter in fashion and beauty products from Vietnam to Taiwan. The North’s artistic expression, on the other hand, is limited to propaganda, and being found in possession of foreign music cassettes is a punishable offense.

While seven out of nine of Yeomyung’s 2007 graduates made it to university, Brown expressed worry for some students, saying they have less ability to focus than South Koreans he has taught. A few students have also had to be warned to take the program more seriously or face expulsion.

Michael Nutkiewicz, executive director of the Program for Torture Victims , an NGO, said past trauma does not simply vanish once refugees reach safe haven and new anxieties are common to refugees.”There’s an ongoing trauma that comes from being in a new environment,” he said.

Still, this tight-knit group has found that sense of community that experts say is so crucial to moving on. Nutkiewicz said younger refugee communities show resilience not often found elsewhere, and experts agree that younger refugees prefer to focus on the future rather than relive the past. “Younger people have the hope of recreating their lives,” he said.

Kim said his vastly different life experience has caused some difficulty in relating to South Koreans his age, although he has made friends with some South Koreans. Some have asked him questions like whether he’s ever eaten grass to survive.

“When they ask, I tell them,” he said bluntly. “But we are similar, although we have had different experiences.”