The Search for Higher Education

by: Judy Oh (Grant Writing Intern)

Last August, I flew from a small liberal arts school in Iowa to study abroad at Yonsei University, located at the heart of Seoul’s bustling metropolis. Through my study abroad program staff, I stumbled across an opportunity to intern at Saejowi, a non-political, non-profit organization dedicated to alleviating the plight of North Korean refugees residing in the South, primarily by means of counseling services in nationally recognized medical centers. Over the course of my internship, I was introduced to many North Koreans, including counselors who were themselves refugees. Among them, I also met students attending university such as myself. These students, whose stories I felt instantly drawn to given our shared experience of student life, compose a sizable group in Korean universities. Among the 30,000 defectors who have entered South Korea since the 1980s, the 20s age bracket happens to be the second highest age group at entry. Upon conversation with some of these students, I learned that despite similar threads in our college experiences, North Korean students were more prone to develop feelings of isolation, depression, and drop out of school.

A Hands-Off Approach

The South Korean government has historically involved itself surprisingly little in the quality of refugees’ tertiary education, choosing instead to provide basic cultural and vocational courses through Hanawon (Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees), a resettlement facility operating under the Ministry of Unification. Furthermore, the Ministry waives the tuition of refugees for public and national universities, while subsidizing half the tuition costs for private universities. Depending on each college’s quota, certain affirmative action policies apply to North Koreans. All in all, this means that for refugees, getting into a college is hardly the challenging feat. The problems arise once they get in.

According to a 2013 report published by the Korea Hana Foundation, North Korean students face the greatest adjustment issues in the classroom. 52.6% of respondents chose “catching up with class” as the primary problem that makes it particularly difficult to adjust, followed by 13.5% for “cultural adaptation and language”, and 8.5% for “friends”. A 2012 New York Times article makes the startling revelation that “more than half of North Korean refugee students in college eventually drop out of college”. In the same article, North Korean refugee Kim Seong-cheol professes that despite being “placed into a university under a new affirmative action program, […] was haunted by the deprivations of his past and quickly slipped behind South Korean classmates who had already made it through years of an extremely competitive education system”.

Educational and Cultural Dissimilarities

In North Korea, students receive a political education first and foremost, which takes up 12.5% of instruction time on average. Propaganda is unfortunately part and parcel in North Korea’s state-directed socialist curriculum. Much of what students learn pertains to Kim Ill-sung and his original school of thought: juche. Language, math, and science take up roughly 15-19% of instruction time, whereas foreign language instruction takes up a mere 9.3%. One refugee, Kim Soo-kyung, claims that “there are a lot of things I didn’t learn in history class in North Korea”, and that “mathematics, physics, and history are taught differently in South and North Korea”, showing a serious discrepancy in the quality of education North Koreans receive compared to their Southern counterparts.

Understanding this in the context of South Korea, a country that has in previous decades charged headfirst into the global economy via rapid industrialization and modernization, it is no wonder that North Korean refugees feel it impossible to keep up, let alone excel in such a competitive environment. South Korean students “consistently rank at the top of the Programme for International Student Assessment survey results in reading, mathematics, and science”, and the country is one of the highest educated nations in the world. Adding to this difficulty of operating in a high-stakes competitive environment, North Koreans face hardship understanding English-borrowed words, such as “smartphone”, “buffet”, “taxi”, which are commonly used and plastered everywhere in cities such as Seoul.

Furthermore, underlying the aforementioned issue are feelings of isolation due to unfamiliarity in a new social and cultural environment. One persistent struggle is discrimination. “Half of North Koreans now living in the South say they have faced discrimination, including from employers, colleagues and even strangers on the street”. This is largely due to negative stereotypes of North Koreans as violent, aggressive, and untrustworthy being promulgated in popular media. Many North Koreans make an effort to hide their distinct Northern accents, and even their identities as refugees altogether. In a majority of cases, these social problems compound pre-existing mental illnesses. According to Saejowi, “9 out of 10 North Korean refugees arrive with untreated physical illness and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)”, ultimately increasing the probability of North Korean refugees dropping out of college.

Toward a Brighter Future

In South Korea, as goes with most countries, college completion is a strong indicator of job attainment. Currently, the unemployment rate for North Korean refugees is at 7%, a startlingly high number compared to South Korea’s overall rate of 3.68%. In order for refugees to achieve self-sufficiency, it is essential to improve college retention rates of refugees. One possible method of improving refugee education is to expand the idea of alternative schools at the secondary level, such as the Hankyoreh High School. Hankyoreh High School is a GED academy founded in 2006, which has taught the national curriculum in classes specifically designed for the individual student’s level. This tailored learning, compared to the South Korean education system’s reluctance to ever “fail” students, may lead to filling in the gaps in refugees’ North Korean education. Other possible avenues of improvement are expanding leadership and mentorship programs for college students. One such example is Yonsei University’s “Tong Il Han Ma Dang’, a student organization which aims to promote intercultural understanding among South and North Korean students. Such organizations establish peer support, which are beneficial for improving both refugees’ academic performance and social networks.

Saejowi Initiative for National Integration

(+82) 2-747-2944

12th floor, Inui Building
112-7 Changgyeonggung-ro
Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea 110-780

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