Arts Help Young Defectors

North Korean youths often struggle after they defect to the South, but arts and community service programs provide support.
2009-08-24
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Pianist and North Korean defector Kim Cheol Woong.
Pianist and North Korean defector Kim Cheol Woong.
RFA/Soo Kyung Lee

SEOUL—Kim Cheol Woong drew international attention when he defected from North Korea six years ago, as the refugee pianist who had fled his repressive homeland for artistic freedom.

Now 35, engaged, and settled into South Korea—and having achieved a lifelong dream of playing at Carnegie Hall—Kim hopes to leverage his fame to help the youngest North Korean defectors, who struggle socially and academically to catch up with their worldly, wired South Korean peers.

“The purpose is to teach North Korean students music so they can brighten their minds and learn about South Korea,” he said. “It’s not only music but play, and art, and a chance to learn how to resolve cultural conflicts. They need to find stability. And joy.”

“The students will be able to learn and cope with the mental trauma they have suffered."

Kim said he plans to start working with North Korean children in an after-school setting next month, when the new academic term begins. He’s raised U.S. $100,000 in seed money and plans to set up a headquarters here.

Several prominent artists have offered help, including film director Kim Tae-kyun and defector artist Sun Mu, and the programs will be offered in churches.

Traumatized and lagging

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Chae Hye-Seong, director of research at the Yeomyung School for defectors in Seoul, in July 2009. RFA photo. RFA
Some 16,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea, most in the last few years, driven by hunger, poverty, and extreme repression. Many have suffered enormous trauma both in North Korea and en route here through China and other third countries.

Most are female, and many spend months or years in China—trafficked as “brides” or sex workers—before crossing into capitalist South Korea.

An official with the South Korean Unification Ministry said 15-18 percent of North Koreans currently defecting to the South are under the age of 20. "As of 2008, the total number was roughly 1,500," or just under 10 percent, the official said.

Defector youths are physically stunted from lack of food in North Korea, and all lag far behind their South Korean peers academically.

The North Korean curriculum focuses on glorifying the regime at the expense of core skills and competencies, teachers and counselors say. And as food shortages have continued and worsened, many teachers have simply abandoned their classes to buy and sell on the black market.

Most young defectors attend special schools where they have a chance to catch up, and they receive special priority in applying to universities.

Second-class citizens

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Kim Young-In, counselor at the Kong Rung Welfare Center in Seoul, July 2009. RFA photo. RFA
Many child defectors from North Korea crossed into China initially “just looking for food. In the worst cases, they came almost by accident. They’re suffering a lot. I thought we should do something for these children,” Kim said.

“They need to shake off the image and the feeling of being second-class citizens.”

That feeling of inferiority runs deep, according to educators and counselors who work with North Korean children and teenagers. They cite arts and community service programs as particularly helpful.

Chae Hye-Seong, director of research at the Yeomyung School for teenage defectors here, said her students “aren’t interested in studying” and have done little of it in the past.

“We have to invest a lot in their study skills. Most were the children of North Korean farmers, and they hid in the mountains as they escaped, so 45-minute classes for eight hours a day is a challenge for them,” she said.

Kim Young-In, a counselor for North Koreans at the Kong Rung Welfare Center here, said parents were part of the problem.

“Korean parents expect their children to excel—North Korean parents are the same, but they don’t see the advantage of giving them psychological support,” she said.

Chae, Kim, and others who work with young defectors say arts and community service help a great deal.

North Korean teenagers who participate in volunteer programs, such as delivering food to shut-ins and refurbishing housing for very low-income South Koreans, take comfort in being able to help others, they say.

And they learn that, contrary to North Korea's official propaganda, not all South Koreans are rich.

Since most aren’t trusting enough to take part in psychotherapy—believing that anyone who wants them to confide could be a spy—arts programs also help, allowing limited self-expression on students’ own terms.

Kim’s music program aims to fill some of that need.

“Music is meant to be shared. When it’s shared it produces a richer and more beautiful melody,” he said.

Reported by Sarah Jackson-Han with translation by Songwu Park in Seoul.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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