July 8, 2009 / 6:25 AM / 10 years ago

Korea centre tries to bridge 60 years of divide

ANSEONG, South Korea (Reuters) - At a red brick building set in rolling hills in South Korea, recent arrivals from North Korea seek to bridge the technology divide, learning skills such as using an ATM or operating a laundromat.

The Hanawon center, which marks the 10th anniversary of its founding on Wednesday, serves as the temporary base for defectors from North Korea, many of them scarred from their escape.

They spend three months here hoping to somehow bridge the 60 years of division that turned their former home into an economic backwater and their new home in the South a global powerhouse.

“Hanawon is the place where the pain of separation and the hope of unification co-exist,” Lee Hong-gu, a presidential adviser on unification said.

For most of the about 16,000 defectors who have passed through, Hanawon marks a respite between harrowing journeys out of North Korea and starting a new life in the South where they must fend for themselves in the competitive, capitalist state.

Many bear mental scars from their escapes, have few skills needed for the South’s competitive job market and little idea about gadgets such as ATMs and mobile phones.

Hanawon, meaning “house of unity,” teaches the new arrivals skills such as using washing machines and paying bills over the Internet. The South’s spy agency keeps an eye out for potential North Korean agents while trying to shatter the image built by the North’s propaganda that leader Kim Jong-il is deity.

Hanawon is equipped with training facilities for vocational skills, computer labs, dormitories and medical facilities where many receive work on their teeth due to the poor state of dental care in the North.

“If you don’t change yourself completely, you can’t live here in South Korea because it is so different from the North,” said defector Dong, who went through Hanawon and now runs a laundromat. He didn’t want to give his full name for security reasons.


The difference between the two Koreas is enormous. The average North Korean’s are several centimeters (inches) shorter than Southerners due to poor nutrition. The North’s broken economy with a yearly GDP of about $17 billion is only 2 percent the size of the South.

South Korea is the world’s most wired country whereas North Korea has few computers, almost no Internet access outside the capital Pyongyang and teaches students about the Web by showing them photocopied papers of monitor displays.

“From the moment you leave Hanawon, not only are you on your own to get a job but to find a place to eat and sleep. You have to do everything by yourself,” said Park Seo-yeon who went through the facility in 2003.

A few Hanawon graduates have gone on to successful careers but most defectors have trouble finding jobs because the communist system in the North provided a healthy education in how to worship Kim Jong-il but few necessary job skills.

The defectors make on average one third of what a typical South Korean earns and defectors say they face discrimination at work, according to a government survey.

Their North Korean accents make them stand out and they often have trouble speaking a South Korean version of the language with its slang and words borrowed from English.

They have also left family and friends behind and many try to earn enough to pay brokers to get other relatives out.

Many of the defectors receive a new name at Hanawon for their safety and also to protect family that have left behind in the North, which uses guilt by association and will jail relatives of those its knows have escaped.

“On the day of unification, I want to see the face of my sister I left behind and weep at the graves of my parents,” said one Hanawon trainee who asked not to be named.

“North Korea, end this tragedy immediately,” she said.

Additional reporting by Jack Kim

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