The Korea Herald


Defector children strive to adapt to new life

Social stigma, trauma haunt young escapees of North Korea

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : June 12, 2014 - 20:39

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The refugee from North Korea said he was 13 years old, but looked nearer 8 and had the penmanship of a 6-year-old.

“I didn’t go to school in North Korea. Few children back there did,” the boy told The Korea Herald, anonymously. His father passed away in an unspecified event back in the communist country and his older sister is missing.

The escape to the South opened up new opportunities for him, but he says he still has trouble adapting to the new culture, new environment and new life.

“I hardly ever hang out with South Korean kids. They all make fun of me, mimicking my accent and repeating what I say.”

The boy, standing nearly a foot shorter than his classmates, did not talk much, but his clamped mouth and eyes full of fear told a story of their own. Young defectors from North Korea often have trouble adapting to their new environment in the South due to prejudice against defectors, a lack of studying and the herculean task of taking in a completely different culture. 
Students at the Durihana International School listen as their principal, Pastor Chun Ki-won (right), speaks on Tuesday. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald) Students at the Durihana International School listen as their principal, Pastor Chun Ki-won (right), speaks on Tuesday. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)

Pastor Chun Ki-won, who heads the Durihana International School for defector children, said the brutal reality of the North and the escape from the country tend to leave children traumatized.

“The biggest problem is that (defectors’) family are dissolved the moment they cross the border. Sometimes mothers are ‘sold’ to men in China in a form of unwanted marriage,” the pastor said.

Broken families, fear of being caught and the memories of hunger and pain back in the hermit kingdom are what ails the young minds. A 13-year-old girl said she had to move to Durihana because she could not keep up with her classmates.

Far from going to private institutes and receiving help from tutors, defector children have only minimal opportunities to learn. Although these children need to spend more time and effort to make up for the lack of education, many defectors fail to see the importance of studying.

This is largely due to living in one of the most repressive environments in the world, according to Chun. He said that former residents from the North have often developed an instinct of doing anything necessary to survive.

“If they don’t fight for their food, they don’t live. Civil rights, ethics and morality are all good, but you cannot think about those things on the brink of life or death,” said Chun. “This became nearly second nature for them, which makes life in South Korea difficult. Hardly any of them feel the need to educate their children.”

The children too fell prey to the fear and anxiety of being caught, resentment and despair of not being wanted by their parents. Many showed signs of anxiety and refrained from going into details about their separated families.

“When the children first came to our school, they were full of hatred toward the world and their parents. They spoke in bitter curses and when they fought, they fought for blood,” said Chun. “I felt these children need to obtain wisdom before they acquire knowledge. The message I try to convey is ‘being the best isn’t the only thing that’s important.’”

Accessing the traumatized children’s hearts is a tall order, and Chun turned to music for help. In order to teach the children the values of cooperation, the school formed a choir.

At first, the children did not understand the concept of singing in harmony. They would all sing as loud as they could, because “every person for themselves” was the only way of life they knew.

But upon hearing their singing, they realized how horrible it was.

“Our goal was to let them realize that it’s not just about ‘me,’ but people have to live alongside others,” Chun said.

The once-reclusive students gradually started to come out of their shells, even braving to participate in performances in front of complete strangers.

“I like singing in a choir because we get to work together, become like one,” said one of the boys at Durihana. Although crudely put, the boy’s fondness toward performing was hinted in the excitement of his voice and the eager expression on his face.

While music played its part in penetrating the children’s hearts, the process of making South Korea their true home is far from over.

“A sense of inferiority, fear of being alone and the thought that others will look down on them looms over the defector children,” Chun said.

Ultimately, defector children and their education is the key for the Koreas overcoming their differences in seeking long-coveted unification, Chun said. The pastor said it was impossible to get defectors to truly open up, despite risking his life, even serving time in Chinese prison, to rescue them.

“No matter how much I try to convince them that I understand what they are feeling, they always end up saying, ‘but you’re from South Korea.’” Chun said.

“The reason I say defector children are our hope is because they have lived in both Koreas. They know the culture and mindsets of people from two different societies. With the proper education, I believe they can lead us on our path toward reunification.”

By Yoon Min-sik and Suh Ye-seul ( (