An hour to the south of Seoul there is a boarding school attended exclusively by North Korean defectors.
It’s a modernist-looking building set back in the mountains, about fifteen minutes away from nowhere. Middle and high school students attend. I have spent a fair amount of time in other schools in Korea, and this one feels completely different. Not least in design: although South Korea seems to have hired the exact same architect to draft all of its other public schools, this school follows a different paradigm, with massive gray concrete forming twin north and south buildings, divided by a four-story open-air hallway that creates a deep gulf between them; but the buildings are joined by the congress of these high school kids going back and forth between them, the whole thing a potent architectural metaphor for the Korean peninsula.
But, beyond design, the general spirit of the place is very different from other schools I’ve seen. This school felt remarkable.There was something in the air that made the school seem like a giant family. Maybe it was just that summer vacation brings out a common spirit in kids even when they’re still in class all day, but I’m not sure that’s it. There was some underlying sense of shared background and responsibility for each other. A sense of community and maturity, pervading the air and all the students’ interactions. That isn’t to say that there was harmony everywhere and rainbows in the fields, because families aren’t like that always either, but I at least sensed that they all belonged.
This may also be partly because the students are older than most South Korean middle or high school students. North Koreans have typically had infrequent education before coming to South Korea; their country’s educational system and irregularities aside, moving between countries tends to have that effect, and many students have lost years of schooling on the illegal road through China.
So they would be a few years behind by any educational standard; but especially so in South Korea, where kids start learning almost prenatally these days. Sometimes actually prenatally, with methods like English recordings. By the time they are in kindergarten many children attend special academic classes after school, and they will continue trundling off to their after-school academies for most of their educational careers the way American kids have Little League practice or go running around top-heavily in football uniforms always in danger of falling over. And then the regular schooling kicks in, and by the time they are in high school they study math English science Korean history Chinese for sixteen hours a day.
So North Korean defectors are at an obvious disadvantage when they arrive, and this boarding school is the intended answer for the school-age ones. Its students are usually a few years older than the average for their grade level, but they catch up quickly, sometimes passing several grade levels a year. It was very surprising to see how diligent these students were, even on summer vacation, studying math and English at all hours of the day, and wonderful to see how awesome the school they’re given is. Top-notch facilities, computers, a baking classroom, resident teachers, a garden, archery and calligraphy and kendo and theater.
We were each of us assigned to one student to mentor over the course of the two weeks. Mine was twenty years old; we’ll call him James.
James wants to learn English more than any other student I met, which is especially great because English learning is so important in Korea for higher-quality jobs. And he is completely fired up. Many other defectors are learning trades—baking, barista-ing, beauty school. James doesn’t know yet what he wants to do for a job, but, at least for now, English is his thing. In English class he studied English, and during math class he studied English, and during down time in after-school theater class he studied English, and in his free time he still studied English. Reading lists of vocabulary and writing them over and over again for pages on end (he taught me words like “capitalism” and “engage” and “prejudice”). Reviewing the journals we’d written that afternoon for vocabulary and grammar practice. Watching “Gossip Girl” with subtitles on.
As we talked he sometimes mentioned Kant or Socrates or Tolstoy. I was somewhat relieved to find out that when he read War and Peace it was an abridged version.
He came here with his mother and older sister. His father stayed behind in North Korea.
We talk more about his family. He showed me a picture of his niece, in China, sent a few months ago. She was two years old when he left; in the picture she is closer to six, her current age. He misses her.
Her mother (James’s oldest sister) tried to come to South Korea at about the same time he came over, but she was caught and arrested by the Chinese authorities. And, as is their policy, sent back to North Korea. Now she is probably in prison, he says. Of course he doesn’t know, and may never know.
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When I write about these stories I don’t know how to communicate the awfulness of what has happened in this part of the world. I can’t feel it myself. I know that all of the things these defectors have seen must create a depth of sadness or despair or emptiness that someone with my small problems can never know. In many ways I hope that you cannot understand, either. But at the same time, of course, I hope that these stories bring people a little closer to understanding. Anyway, whatever I write, it will not change much; whatever I do, it will be inadequate.But sharing it is a start.
The Ministry of Unification undertakes the task of housing and educating and supporting defectors through the whole settlement process. But there is still much to be done.
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One day after lunch James was distant. Had trouble focusing on our journal-writing. He kept staring off into space, lost in thought, or tracing stars endlessly over the same path on his paper. Empty of affect. That day scared me, and I wondered what he was thinking about when before he had always seemed so much at peace, even when we talked about his sister back in North Korea. No matter what I tried, I could not pull him back.
But the very next day he was back to normal. And, anyway, his username is “effortguy”.
Effort guy! I think he will be okay.