SEOUL—The newly minted graduates of No. 34 School in South Korea, all North Korean defectors, boarded a subway train with their parents headed to the North Korean border.
They were taking part in a commencement ceremony that would carry them from Seoul Station to Imjingak Park in South Korea’s northern Paju city, where they would pay respects to family and friends left behind when they defected from the world's last remaining Stalinist bastion.
The ceremony marked the sixth graduation for No. 34 School, which aims to help young North Korean defectors catch up on lost study time and adapt to South Korean society.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for boarding our train today,” an announcement sounded over the loudspeaker after the group had filed onto the train car.
The passengers took their seats and began to sing "Riding on the Clouds," the No. 34 School anthem, as the train pulled out of the station.
‘A unique experience’
Several of the students graduating from No. 34 School plan to further their studies and will apply to universities in South Korea.
Three have already been admitted.
Wearing black gowns, they line up, taking turns to receive their diplomas.
Afterwards, Lee Eun Byul, Kim Seo Yeon, and Kang Young Soo all expressed their excitement about the north-bound commencement.
“When I heard that we’d have our commencement on a train, I felt a bit nervous. It seemed like a unique experience,” Lee said.
“I have already been admitted to Soongshil Women’s University, where I’ll be majoring in social welfare. I am overjoyed, since this has been the job I’ve been dreaming about since I arrived in South Korea,” she said.
Kim Seo Yeon said she felt nervous about graduating because she realized that as she grows older she will be forced to make more decisions on her own.
“I feel grateful to the No. 34 School for having enabled me to feel the joy of having accomplished something, and of knowing that I will soon be able to experience college life,” Kim said.
“My goal this year is to improve my English, as much as I can,” she said.
Kang Young Soo said he was overjoyed about the prospect of graduating near North Korea, where he spent the early years of his life.
“I have attended several commencement ceremonies, but this is the first time I’ve seen one celebrated on a train, and it feels really good,” he said.
“I haven’t had a chance to visit Imjingak Park since I arrived in South Korea. I feel even more joyous, knowing that Imjingak is so close to North Korea.”
In addition to their diplomas, the students also received gifts and cash prizes from the Youngdeungpo district office of the Korea Freedom Federation, the South Korean Ocarina Association, and the Young Professional Institute of Korea.
Kim Seo Yeon was individually honored with an award from the Rainbow Youth Center, which helps young North Korean defectors resettle in South Korea and contributes to their education.
The students who have come along for the commencement ceremony that are still in school congratulate the recent graduates and give them parting gifts.
A symbolic station
Dorasan Station, near Imjingak Park, is situated on the Gyeongui Line, which once connected North and South Korea and has since been restored.
For several years, Dorasan was the northernmost stop on the line.
On Dec. 11, 2007, freight trains began traveling north past Dorasan Station into North Korea, taking materials to the jointly operated Kaesong Industrial Zone and returning with finished goods.
The trains were scheduled to make one 10-mile (16-km) trip every weekday.
But on Dec. 1, 2008, the North Korean regime closed the border crossing after accusing the South of adopting a policy of confrontation.
Imjingak Park, on the banks of the Imjin River, was built to console Koreans from both sides of the border who have been unable to return to their hometowns, friends, and families following the Korean War.
The park has many statues and monuments commemorating the conflict and is also home to the Bridge of Freedom, a former railroad bridge used by repatriated prisoners of war and other soldiers returning north across the Imjin River.
For those left behind
The commencement ceremony has been a very special experience for the young North Korean defectors, many of whom were separated from parents and siblings during their defection.
Their experiences in North Korea and their readjustment to life in South Korea have been anything but easy.
The students arrive at Dorasan Station and look out to Imjingak Park, near the demarcation line that separates the two countries.
As they walk out to the park, the students can’t help but think about the obstacles they have overcome and the pain of leaving their loved ones behind.
“Wherever you are, do your best. I hope you are happy and in good health,” says one student as stares across the border.
“I wish you could come to South Korea,” says another.
“Life is much better here, and you would have to worry much less if you joined me here.”
Park Sang Young, the principal of No. 34 School, congratulates the recent graduates and asks them to maintain their confidence as they venture out into the world.
“This is our sixth class to graduate. I am experiencing a sense of great satisfaction and accomplishment, knowing that you have completed your academic requirements, in a place and environment that is new to you, and that you will be entering a new world,” he tells the students.
“This is my graduation advice to you: Avoid comparing yourselves with others, especially with your South Korean peers. Walk your own way, as you have done thus far, and remember that being confident at all times will always be more important than the work you’ll be doing.”
Original reporting by Chang So Yeon for RFA’s Korean service. Korean service director: Bong Park. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.