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.
Up until the first 22 students came to the school when it opened in 2006, the government did not have any special curriculum for the defectors, who were usually so overwhelmed by schools in the South that they simply dropped out.
Besides academic courses, the students learn how to surf the Internet as well as how to use basic tools of the modern world such as credit cards.
Civic groups, many of them Christian-based, have also tried to help by setting up private schools for defectors.
Students stay from six months to two years at the Hangyoreh school before making the transition to a regular school, or starting a job.
Some critics say more should be done to prepare the young defectors for the country’s grueling education system and its cut-throat job market.
Hangyoreh has been pushed to its limits due to an ever increasing number of defectors. About half of the 14,000 North Koreans who have defected to the South since 1989 have arrived in the last three years.
The school, situated in hills overlooking farmland about an hour’s drive from Seoul, has modern classrooms, a well-equipped gym, language labs and dorms where students live four-to-a-room.
The students usually take new names in the South because the North regularly sends relatives of defectors to prison to deter others from leaving the destitute state.
The escape route from North Korea is via China which regards these defectors as economic refugees and forcibly repatriates them home where rights groups say they are usually imprisoned in brutal conditions.
Han left North Korea to join an aunt who had already made her way to the South. She reached South Korea via China and Vietnam.
“We were taught in the North that schools in the South were tightly controlled and sometimes students there were killed by Yankee imperialists,” she said.
Han, who said she loves her new life, hopes to be an English teacher. But she is wary of the challenge of South Korea’s intensely competitive education system.
“Competition can be good if it motivates me and challenges me to be better, but here you have to step on others to climb up the ladder,” she said.
For most of the students, the time at Hangyoreh is a respite ahead of a new life in the South, where defectors are often treated like strangers who happen to speak the same language.
A few graduates have managed to obtain places at South Korea’s top universities but many of the Hangyoreh students have scaled down their career dreams.
“I wanted to be a doctor back in the North, but I’ve come to realize after I got to the South that I might not be competent enough,” said Hangyoreh student Jang Jung-sim. “Now I’ve set my sights on becoming a kindergarten teacher.”
Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun, editing by Megan Goldin