SEOUL—Young defectors who risk death and imprisonment to flee hunger and political repression in Stalinist North Korea face new problems on arrival in the capitalist South, with many failing to complete their schooling, or to find an identity outside the self-described Workers' Paradise they left behind.
North Korean children who are resettled in the South face unexpected difficulties caused by language differences, a world-view taught by one of the last bastions of hardline communism, and many years of missed schooling while hiding in neighboring China.
"First of all, due to language differences, there is the problem of the rather unfamiliar environment the North Korean students encounter in regular South Korean schools," said Chae Hye-Seong, head of research at Seoul's Yeo Myung special school for North Korean defectors.
"They don’t comprehend the material or content taught in class, and they have trouble understanding the discussions among their South Korean peer groups," she said.
"Ultimately, many of them experience isolation and feel ostracized, and that is the reason for most adaptation difficulties they experience."
Dropout rates high
The dropout rate among North Korean middle-school students is 12.9 percent, compared with 0.8 percent in the general population. Among high-school students, it is a staggering 28.1, compared with 1.8 percent among South Koreans.
A handful of schools has been set up to address the problems of young defectors, who have often seen and endured more in their short lives than their South Korean peers could imagine, with sometimes devastating consequences.
"The kids drink heavily, especially the boys," psychosocial counselor Kim Young-In said.
"They ride motorcycles a lot, whether they have a license or not, and even if they have a license, they have accidents."
"Some of them end up in juvenile detention facilities," she said.
Schools such as Yeo Myung sometimes teach North Koreans hoping to graduate high school well into adulthood, to help them make up for missed years of schooling.
Long years in high school
Three other private alternative schools, known as Schools 3-4 and Heavenly Dreams School, cater to North Korean defectors in Seoul and neighboring Kyungki province.
The dropout rate for North Korean students in South Korean public schools remains high, according to Yeo Myung's Chae.
"If a student attended middle or high school in North Korea for several years, it doesn’t necessarily mean that one will automatically receive equivalent credit in South Korea," she said.
As a result, defector children can easily find themselves studying with children several years younger.
"South Korean students of the same age are generally ahead of their North Korean peers, due to differences in the educational systems and material taught in South and North Korea," Chae said.
"The longer they are out of school in China or third countries, the lower the grade they are assigned in South Korea," she added.
Much of the difficulty comes from a severe identity crisis sparked by being uprooted from a closed ideological system,and transplanted to a capitalist society, Kim said.
"It is difficult enough for teenagers to grow up and discover their identity while living within the same culture and environment where they’ve grown up," she said.
"What makes it extremely difficult for these young North Korean defectors is that, as they traverse this crucial, defining, and grueling period in their life, they have to change the culture, environment, and country they live in."
"This exponentially amplifies the difficulties they face."
Kim said North Korean children might be scolded by teachers if they referred to their origins with any pride or affection, citing the case of a young boy reprimanded for hanging both Korean flags on his dorm room wall.
"Roots are roots, and this issue is extremely difficult for the young North Korean defectors," Kim said.
North Korean children are also frequently misunderstood and teased by their South Korean classmates, Chae said.
"They feel that being a North Korean defector is a stigma, that because of the way North Koreans are perceived in the South they are belittled, and thus try to hide their North Korean origin."
Original reporting in Korean by S.W. Park. Korean service director: Insop Han. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.