In a nondescript building in central Seoul, an unusual private school is trying to teach young North Korean defectors how to survive in the South. The problems suffered by its students adjusting to life in a democratic state offer a window into life in the totalitarian North.The piece notes its not just the three R's that require attention:
Woo Kee-sup is the school's president.
"They missed many years of schooling because they [fled North Korea and were hiding] in a third country like China," he says. "And the education system in North Korea is basically demolished."
Formal education in North Korea is largely dedicated to extolling leader Kim Jong Il through songs and ideological classes, and even math problems may use political examples as teaching aids. Its aim: to teach obedience at all costs to maintain the regime, rather than teaching students how to think for themselves.
In drama class, clad in baggy jeans, students fool around, pretending to be robots.Perhaps it's good that these folks have a built-in reason for having depression, which gives them an excuse to visit mental health professionals, get diagnosed, and get treatment without fear of being stigmatized (a big problem for the general SoKo population).
But what may look like goofing off is actually therapy. These students are damaged, from years of hunger and the ever present fear of living in a society where neighbors inform on each other. Add to that the dangerous journey out of North Korea, which can take years living in conditions close to slavery.
"In some sense," says Woo, "their human nature was destroyed and their identity was lost, so we help them find their identity again through classes like this."
As the students laugh and shriek, one girl is noticeable for her lack of participation. She sits alone, lost in thought, her expression bereft, a tissue in her hand. Young defectors suffer from shockingly high rates of depression.
"Ten percent of our students need medicating because they're seriously depressed," says Cho, the teacher. "More than 50 percent have been diagnosed as clinically depressed but don't need medication."
It breaks my heart to hear about all these horror stories, and I always find it heartening to learn about groups helping them. I can't imagine what they have gone through to get to South Korea or what they're going through after they arrive. But it does give us an inkling of what we're in store for when and if the two Koreans eventually reunify. Imagine a whole country with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Oh, and if you're one of those who doesn't like my use of the word defector, please note that it was in the original NPR piece and, even if it weren't, I don't really see a problem with the word.