By Alexandra Langford
Many defectors from North Korea brave journeys of thousands of miles, hazardous crossings, years of hardship apart from their families and the threat of exploitation and repatriation in their perilous flight to freedom. Once they reach South Korea, where many defectors choose to resettle, they are out of physical danger, but despite sharing a common ethnicity and core language, they face numerous social, cultural and linguistic challenges settling into their new homes.
As North Korean defector students adjust to life in South Korea and grapple with one of the world’s most rigorous and pressurized education systems and competitive job markets, many cite the English language as an especially difficult subject to learn. To support defectors as they adapt to life south of the 38th Parallel, Embassy Seoul partners with numerous educational institutions in Seoul and surrounding cities, bolstering English education opportunities for North Korean defectors. These programs ensure that defector students receive the support needed to develop English language skills that will aid them in forging their own professional futures in South Korea.
According to a 2017 survey conducted by the Korea Hana Foundation, which provides educational and other support to North Korean defectors, the majority of North Korean defectors are of middle- and high-school age. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) extols the virtues of its educational system, including boasting a literacy rate of 100 percent, but a 2017 “Foreign Policy News” report indicates that 16 percent of North Korean class time is dedicated to studying political thought, which includes the propaganda-heavy history of Chairman Kim Jong Un and his family. While not as blatant as political thought classes, other subjects, such as math and English, also incorporate praise for the DPRK leadership: sample sentences from English textbooks proclaim Kim Il Sung’s generosity and Pyongyang’s beauty. Moreover, students who escape North Korea must put their education on hold, sometimes for many years. To reach the South, most defectors flee through China, where they are considered illegal immigrants and are subject to repatriation. When students who have defected try to pick up where they left off in South Korea, many find that they are far behind their classmates.
English—present in many aspects of South Korean life, from mandatory language classes beginning in elementary school to increasingly common loanwords—is a major barrier to defectors, including students, looking to build a life in the South. In public schools, defector students, who may become the targets of bullying, already face significant challenges adjusting to their new lives and school environment. Data from the South Korean government highlight the effects of an interrupted education on North Korean defector students. The high school dropout rate for North Korean defector students in 2018 was 2.5 percent, significantly higher than the 2018 dropout rate of 0.9 percent for South Korean students overall. Prominent commentators and South Korean NGOs that work with defectors attribute this outcome to the difficulties many defectors experience in trying to keep up with South Korea’s fast-paced curriculum while simultaneously dealing with the social challenges accompanying defection.
The U.S. Embassy in Seoul funds the Form Networks, Reach Goals, Experience Dreams, Exchange Knowledge, Develop Unity (FREED), an NGO that supports curriculum and textbook development with defector-specific lessons. Created with the help of professors, principals, English teachers and the Department of State’s own English language instruction resources, FREED’s materials are standardized across South Korea. A standardized defector curriculum guarantees that North Korean defector students across the country receive the same high-quality education that will help them adapt to and succeed in South Korea’s highly competitive society.
The English Access Microscholarship Program—also funded by the embassy and made possible through partnerships with local NGOs and specialized schools for North Korean defectors—provides defector students with additional English language support. Students who enroll in the Access program for one year receive 320 hours of English instruction. As Access program participants, students also receive small-group instruction with lessons tailored to their English abilities.
In a recent “Yonhap News Agency” article, Kim Hong-woo, an English Access Program participant at Seoul’s Great Vision School, praised the program, saying, “I like this class. … I have little trouble understanding the teacher speaking English. I think the class is just my level.”
Similar to the English Access Program, the Global Undergraduate Student Exchange (UGRAD) and the Work, English, Study and Travel (WEST) programs provide English support to defector students in the form of educational exchange opportunities to the United States. Both the UGRAD and WEST programs give students the chance to further develop their English language skills while making friends and learning about U.S. culture and democratic values.
At the same time, both programs challenge the DPRK regime’s one-dimensional propaganda portrayal of the United States as a violent imperialist, which all North Koreans are exposed to from an early age. The embassy-supported programs offer students firsthand experience with the United States and help dispel these misperceptions. They also build an important understanding between participating students and those they encounter on their exchanges. According to a study commissioned by the embassy, 50 percent of defectors are still in contact with their friends and family in North Korea, making participants with a direct knowledge of the United States an important counter to unfounded anti-Americanism. On the flip side, the cultural exchange between defector students and the Americans they meet also helps remind Americans that the DPRK government does not represent its entire population.
Embassy Seoul provides a forum to North Korean defector students through its Amplifying Voices Roundtable that provides these youth the opportunity to meet and share their experiences with senior U.S. officials. This platform empowers defectors to tell their stories while reminding them that their perspectives are important and worth sharing with a wider audience. For example, during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018, Vice President Mike Pence met with a group of North Korean defectors and commended their bravery after hearing about their lives in the DPRK and the harrowing stories of their escapes.
Embassy Seoul also supports Fulbright English teaching assistants working with North Korean defectors through independent, alternative institutions for the defector community. Each Fulbright teaching assistant receives teacher training with embassy English materials and defector-specific curricula. In 2018, the embassy hosted a Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs-funded English Language Fellow at the Daum School, an alternative institution providing English education for defector students. Drawing on her past experience with African refugees, the fellow supported students’ psychological needs, as many students require additional support after risking their lives to escape from North Korea.
The road to freedom is dangerous and filled with obstacles; the difficulties facing defectors do not end when they reach South Korea. Learning the intricacies of South Korean society and how to successfully fit in to a new way of living are struggles in and of themselves. As English continues to be a skill important to everyday life in South Korea, the embassy and the schools it works with are an important source of support for defectors looking to make South Korea their home.
Alexandra Langford is an intern at Embassy Seoul.