Kim Seong-cheol is a survivor. He left his home in North Korea at the age of 8 for a Dickensian existence, begging on the streets with a pack of boys when famine struck and his parents could not feed him. By his account, he endured several stays in brutal North Korean and Chinese prisons for attempting to cross the border into China.
But when he finally made it to South Korea, and freedom, Kim faced an obstacle that even his considerable street smarts could not help him overcome. He had placed into a university under a new affirmative action programme, but was haunted by the deprivations of his past and quickly slipped behind South Korean classmates who had already made it through years of an extremely competitive education system.
“I just couldn’t shake the memory of hunger from my mind,” said Kim, 26, who dropped out after just one semester and fell into a deep, alcohol-fueled depression.
Kim is part of a growing number of defectors who are making their way south – the number has increased sevenfold to 23,000 in the last decade – and posing a growing challenge for South Korea. Attempts at integration, including government-run crash courses on life in the capitalist South, have had mixed results, leaving many North Koreans unable to adapt to South Korea’s high-pressure society or overcome their stereotype as backward country cousins.
The government had hoped that education might close the chasm, offering piecemeal steps over the last decade that evolved into a full-fledged affirmative action programme, which gives young North Koreans the chance to bypass grueling entrance exams to enter top universities. Now, even that stopgap measure appears to be failing as large numbers of North Koreans are dropping out, creating new worries that they and other defectors could become part of a permanent underclass.
“These children are simply not equipped for South Korea’s fiercely competitive society,” said Shin Hyo-sook, a specialist in education at the North Korean Refugees Foundation, a newly created government research institute. “They suffer identity issues due to their extreme experiences.”
The difficulties have come despite the fact that the government and universities have tried to give them an additional leg up, offering the approximately 500 defectors enrolled in South Korean universities free tuition, government-paid housing and living stipends. And the problems are likely to get more pronounced as defectors increasingly include whole families and children who left without their parents.
Officials say the difficulties tend to appear at university because it is the first time that the defectors, who are sent to special remedial elementary and high schools after arriving, find themselves in the same classroom with South Korean students.
Many South Koreans had assumed that a shared language and culture would help defectors ease past the educational gaps, but the defectors say the extra help is not enough to catch up with South Korean classmates who spent the evenings and weekends of their childhood at cram schools preparing for entrance exams. Most of the North Koreans, often from that nation’s lower social rungs, have at most a few years of elementary school education more focused on political indoctrination than reading and math, defectors say.
An even bigger challenge, educators say, are the defectors’ emotional problems. While South Korean officials say they have not concluded whether these children suffer cognitive deficiencies from malnutrition, they say the North Koreans often suffer depression, anger and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
What is clear is the result: education experts say that at many universities, half or more of North Korean defectors are dropping out, though the problem is so new that complete statistics do not exist. (The dropout rate among South Koreans is just 4.5 percent.)
One North Korean who barely avoided that fate is Kim Kyeong-il, whose family reached the South in its second attempt to defect seven years ago. After the first attempt, when he was 9, he says, he was thrown into a North Korean prison where he barely survived the beatings and starvation that claimed the life of his father. After arriving in the South at 17 and going to a special remedial school, he got a chance to enter Korea University, one of the country’s most prestigious schools. But he found himself way behind in English, which he was not taught in virulently anti-Western North Korea. He was even behind in Korean, having reached only the fourth grade in the North. In lectures, he did not understand the professors’ jokes about South Korean pop culture, but laughed anyway to avoid sticking out.
“I felt like someone from the 1970s who was put on a time machine and dropped in the 21st century,” said Kim, 24, a senior majoring in Chinese language. He said many of his classmates shun him for his northern accent, and for his small stature likely caused by inadequate nutrition.
He avoided dropping out by transferring to Seoul’s Yonsei University, another high-level university but one that has been cited as a model for the support it offers defectors.
The university offers its approximately 50 North Korean students free tutoring and psychological counselling, according to Jeong Chong-hun, a professor who advises the North Koreans there. “They risked their lives to seek freedom here, so it’s our obligation to help,” he said.
Still, he said some students grow so isolated or bitter that they skip classes, and even there, a third of the defectors do not finish school. One North Korean student at Yonsei committed suicide.
Kim Seong-cheol, the former street beggar, said his own feelings of intense isolation contributed to his leaving school. His relatively coddled classmates, he said, could not possibly understand the traumas that he had suffered – the wrenching decision to leave his parents to survive or the pain of being shocked with electric prods in prison camps. And they were unburdened by the nightmares that jolted him awake at nights, leaving him too exhausted to study. In the worst dream, he relived the death of his best friend, over and over. The boy died in front of him, choking on a stolen ball of rice as an angry merchant kicked him.
But after a year of heavy drinking and never leaving his government-paid apartment during the day, Kim decided it was not in his nature to give up.
He enrolled at a new school, Konkuk University in Seoul, and changed his major from computer science to real estate, in part because it seemed easier.
“I must succeed this time,” said Kim, now a junior. “But whatever I do here, I still always ask myself, ‘What am I? Where do I belong?’ ”