Before my two-week stay at Hangyeorae High School for the Ministry of Unification 2011 summer internship, I had been concerned with measurements toward assimilation. However, I found that my short stay at Hangyeore transformed my understanding of the assimilation process and changed the opinions I had of assimilation. Before coming to South Korea, I had been more skeptical of assimilation centers because of the introduction I had received while learning about the history of the Korean peninsula while at my university in America. I had doubted assimilation centers such as Hanawon (the mandatory South Korean assimilation center for North Korean defectors) because of impressions formed through the research article by Hae Yeon Choo titled “Gendered Modernity and Ethnicized Citizenship: North Korean Settlers in Contemporary South Korea.”
In the introduction of her article, Choo makes the argument, “North Korean settlers are expected to get rid of ethnic markers as North Koreans and transform themselves into modern citizen-subjects of South Korea” (577). It worried me that it was seen as necessary to erase indications of North Korean differences from South Korean citizens because I had spent time researching Koreans born and raised in Japan who had struggled with living in a society that expected them to conform to the majority and conceal the part of their identity that was too different. I was concerned that something similar would happen to the North Korean refugees now living in South Korea – that the effort to make North Korean refugees into South Korean citizens would cause emotional damage as well as perpetuate the insinuation of North Korean inferiority. My sensitivity to the issues of forced assimilation caused me to forget to distinguish the large gap between the hopes and goals of the assimilation centers and the reaction of society in regards to North Korean defectors.
After I had spoken to some of the students at Hangyeorae about their school and about their transition from North Korean to South Korean society, I realized that I needed to take another look at the article I had read nine months ago. While at Hangyeorae, one of the students had told us about how much pride he had in the school and how he wanted all of the students to be good representatives for Hangyeorae by behaving as model students on and off campus. Many of the other students also told us about how some of the trips the school had taken them on enabled them to interact with South Korean students and to see other countries such as the Philippines. The school did not only stress adaptation to South Korean society but also aimed to expand the worldview of its students within and outside of the classroom. Although some of the students still expressed fear of the prejudice they would encounter from South Koreans, it seemed that the assimilation centers offered much more warmth than I had originally perceived. Therefore, I decided to go back to the article I had read to find out what else it could tell me about the assimilation process in places like the Hanawon centers. Choo describes,
North Korean settlers fulfill their desire to gain legal citizenship immediately on arrival to South Korea, but once they arrive in South Korea, they are required to stay for three months at the government educational facility of Hanawon. There they learn how to live in South Korea, studying South Korean politics and capitalist economics as well as gaining practical training in computer usage, basic English, the South Korean accent, driving, and shopping. (583)
It is clear in Choo’s article that the assimilation centers have been doing what they can to help North Korean refugees’ transition into South Korean society without purposefully attempting to expunge their North Korean culture. Moreover, I realized that Choo’s article does not paint the refugee community as mere victims: “North Korean settlers are not responding passively within the South Korean citizen-making process but participating actively as agents with zeal and desire” (590).
Therefore, as I reflect upon the people I met who have been encouraged and nurtured by the environments at Hanawon and Hangyeorae, I think that the real challenge is not helping North Korean settlers to find stability in the foreign landscape in South Korea, but is instead to find a way to break down the prejudice and antagonism that South Koreans may harbor toward the North Korean settlers. I have not personally encountered these negative feelings, but in my experience one usually finds the truth about society by looking at its minorities. I think that it is correct to consider the North Korean community as a minority in South Korea. The stories that I heard from some of the students about their hesitations make me feel that one of the next steps is to build a bridge between the two Koreas within South Korea itself. Unification within South Korea will hopefully pave the road for unification of the Korean peninsula.
Choo, Hae Yeon. “Gendered Modernity and Ethnicized Citizenship: North Korean Settlers in Contemporary South Korea,” Gender & Society, Vol. 20 No. 5, October 2006. DOI: 10.1177/0891243206291412