North Korean teen defectors get capitalist education

Tue Dec 2, 2008 10:07pm EST
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By Jon Herskovitz

ANSEONG, South Korea (Reuters) - North Korean teenager Han Jee-hee's journey to school in South Korea began by slipping past border guards into China where she went into hiding to avoid forcible repatriation home.

Han eventually made it to South Korea, leaving behind family, friends and a broken education system in the North where schools have a curriculum steeped in extolling the state's communist ideology.

The 19-year-old is among more than 200 North Koreans studying at the Hangyoreh Junior and Senior High School, set up by South Korea to prepare the young defectors for the huge changes they face living in a capitalist state. Lessons include academic courses as well as learning to use gadgets such as cell phones that other teenagers take for granted.

"Finding a way to live after they leave this school is nothing compared to the struggle it took for them to get here," said Principal Gwak Jong-moon, an expert in special education.

The students, wearing the school's stylish blue blazers, on average have missed nearly four years of school during their escape from the North. After reaching China, they typically went into hiding and then made their way to a third country from where they sought passage to South Korea.

The children at Hangyoreh mostly come from the poorest parts of impoverished North Korea. Most live in South Korea without one or both of their parents, few have had much formal education and almost all have emotional scars from their harrowing escapes.

"For me survival was far more important than studying," said a 19-year-old defector, who asked not to be named. He spent years in hiding in China before seeking passage to the South.

LIFE ON THE RUN   Continued...

<p>A new student, who is a North Korean defector, learns how to use a computer during a class at the Hangyeore middle and high school in Anseong, about 80 km (50 miles) south of Seoul, November 21, 2008. North Korean teenage defectors attend special schools in the South where they learn skills that other teenagers take for granted such as using a cell phone and surfing the web. Picture taken November 21, 2008. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak</p>