Korea: crossing the divide: teen defectors from North Korea face a difficult transition to life in South Korea

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Korea: crossing the divide: teen defectors from North Korea face a difficult transition to life in South Korea.
When 14-year-old Ju Jin-ho arrived in South Korea in 2006, it was as if he had landed on another planet, not just the southern half of the Korean Peninsula.

Even though the defector from North Korea was placed in a school with students a year or two younger, most of his classmates were a head taller. They teased him as a "Red," or Communist, and were far ahead of him in subjects like math. He was desperate to make friends but had trouble communicating.

"During class breaks, they talked about nothing but computer games," says Ju, now 17. "I started playing them so I could join their conversations."

Now, however, Ju is participating in a program that seeks to overcome the cultural gap that has developed between the people of communist North Korea and capitalist and democratic South Korea. It brings together teenage South Koreans and North Korean defectors in an effort to promote understanding, and prepare for possible reunification after more than six decades of division.

(Korea was split at the end of World War II in 1945, a division that hardened when North and South fought a brutal war from 1950-53. For more background, see Times Past, p. 24.)

Just how far the two sides have drifted apart--and how radically different people's experiences have been--was apparent when Park Sung-eun, a 16-year-old South Korean, met Ju through the program in Seoul, South Korea's capital.

"When I asked him, 'How do you get here?' I expected him to say by bus or subway," Park says. Instead, she recalls, "He gave me the whole story of his journey from North Korea through China and Myanmar," which can take years.

The program was started last year by the Reverend Benjamin H. Yoon, head of the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.

"Although we share the same genes, South and North Koreans live like completely different peoples, with different accents, different ways of thinking and behaving," says Yoon. "We forgot that before Korea was divided, we lived in the same country, marrying each other."

Yoon's program brings together students from Kyunggi Girls' High School in Seoul with young North Korean defectors. They attend concerts and cook together. The North Koreans show the Southerners how to harvest yams and make scarecrows. The Southerners give the Northerners tips on how to succeed socially as well as academically.


One evening, Moon Sung-il, a 14-year-old North Korean, brought tears to the South Koreans' eyes when he recounted his two-and-a-half-year flight that took him through China, Myanmar, and a refugee camp in Thailand. But none of that, he told them, was as daunting as a South Korean classroom.

"I could hardly understand anything the teacher said," he said. "My classmates, who were all a year or two younger than I was, taunted me as a 'poor soup-eater from the North.'"


More than 17,000 North Koreans, one tenth of them teens, have fled to the South since famine hit their homeland in the mid-1990s. The journeys to the South, mostly through China and Southeast Asia, take an average of three years. Some defectors have been caught and returned to North Korea, where they often end up in labor camps.

Like Ju, many North Korean teens are small for their age due to malnutrition. They also lag behind their South Korean peers in education. Back home, they spent as much time learning about their leader, Kim Jong Il, as they did the rest of Korean history. Few learned English, a requirement in South Korean schools.

With the number of North Korean refugees rising 10 percent annually to about 2,000 a year, how to integrate them has become an early test for possible unification.

In South Korea, an image has developed of Northerners as second-class Koreans--needy and starving but surly and belligerent: They accept food aid from the South but threaten it with war and build nuclear weapons; they are friendly toward China but have rejected talks with South Korea.

The mistrust is mutual: In the North, teachers tell children that South Korea is an American colony, a springboard for a future invasion. "Back in the North, we seldom heard teachers talk about unification," says Choi Hyok-chol, a 19-year-old defector.

Many South Koreans are wary of how difficult and expensive reuniting two such different economies and cultures would be. For example, per capita GDP (Gross Domestic Product) in the North is $1,800, compared with $28,000 in the South.

There's also the cautionary example of German reunification in 1990. Germany was also split at the end of World War II--into a Communist East and a democratic West. While unification has helped make Germany one of the world's biggest economies, the first years were indeed difficult.

But after mingling with North Koreans for a semester, hearing about their hardships and relatives left behind, the South Korean teens say they believe more strongly in unification, less for economic reasons than something closer to good will.

"Before I joined this program," says Hut Ji-Young, a freshman at Kyunggi, "I considered unification with a calculator, not with my heart for fellow Koreans in the North."

Choe Sang-hun covers South Korea for The New York Times.

PER CAPITA GDP * $1,800 $28,000




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