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(Yonhap Feature) Young N.K. defectors speak of hardship, dream in English

2017/11/09 09:00

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By Kim Soo-yeon

SEOUL, Nov. 9 (Yonhap) -- Lee Su-jin (an alias), a 14-year-old North Korean defector, and her mother had to eat snow while crossing a desert in Mongolia in the freezing winter years ago during their long journey to escape from their impoverished, repressive home country.

Lee finally settled down in South Korea, but her heart aches whenever she thinks about her father and elder brother, who were repatriated by Chinese police to North Korea as they traveled. But she says she will do her best for her future and wishes to be reunited with her beloved ones someday.

"I was hopeless and without any dream back in North Korea. We didn't have the freedom to dream. But I can dream here. And because I can dream, I will dream, and I will make my dream come true," Lee said.

Lee is among 20 young North Korean refugees who spoke of their resettlement stories and thoughts about the two Koreas' reunification in English at a speech contest Saturday. It was hosted by the Korea Hana Foundation, the state-run agency in charge of support for defectors.

The foundation held its first English speech contest for middle and high-school students who escaped from North Korea or were born in China to North Korean defector families.

This photo, provided by the Korea Hana Foundation, shows young North Korean defectors who took part in an English-speaking contest hosted by the agency on Nov. 4, 2017, along with Ko Kyung-bin (3rd from L), the president of the foundation. (Yonhap) This photo, provided by the Korea Hana Foundation, shows young North Korean defectors who took part in an English-speaking contest hosted by the agency on Nov. 4, 2017, along with Ko Kyung-bin (3rd from L), the president of the foundation. (Yonhap)

"I hope that this contest will help the participants improve their English proficiency and have confidence to become people who fit well in the era of globalization," said Ko Kyung-bin, the president of the foundation.

More than 30,000 North Koreans have defected to the capitalist South in search of freedom and a better life. For young defectors, learning English is cited as one of the main difficulties in adapting to South Korea.

South and North Korea speak the same language, but the gap between their daily use of words has grown since they were divided about 70 years ago, and there has been an influx of foreign languages into the South.

The refugees at the contest said that they had barely studied English in North Korea. Some of them learned the alphabet in China, but many said they had hard time in catching up with South Korean students. But repeated practice and help from teachers and volunteers made it possible for them to tell their own stories in English on stage in front of an audience, they say.

The participants said that they had to hide the fact that they are from North Korea for fear that they may be discriminated against or bullied due to their origins.

Lee Bo-mee (an alias), an 18-year-old defector, said she felt shamed when her pal asked her whether she had heard the rumor that there was a North Korean defector in their school.

"I tried to deny that I was embarrassed. It was not my fault that I came from North Korea," Lee said. "I, a North Korean (defector), was still considered as a 'stranger and a foreigner.' ... So I had no choice but to hide my identity and who I really was for fear of being out-casted."

   Some 61 percent of 857 defectors aged between eight and 18 said they do not reveal that they are from North Korea, according to a 2016 survey by the foundation.

The poll showed that 46.3 percent of such refugees said they saw no need to reveal their backgrounds, followed by 22.5 percent who had concerns over discrimination.

Cho Yoon-jae (an alias), an 18-year-old defector, said life in South Korea was tougher than he expected. When he came to the South in 2014, he could not speak Korean, as he was born and raised in China.

When his friend gave him an apple, Cho thought his friend had called him stupid, as "sagwa," the Korean word for an apple, sounds like the Chinese word "shagua," which means a fool, he added.

"After one year of studying Korean, I was able to understand it mostly. However, cultural differences were much more difficult to overcome than the language barrier," Cho said.

As for difficulties in school life, 48.5 percent of 856 defector students said that it is not easy to keep up with classes, trailed by 8.1 percent who have difficulty making friends, the poll showed. Cultural and language barriers ranked third with 7.6 percent.

The logo of the Korea Hana Foundation (Yonhap) The logo of the Korea Hana Foundation (Yonhap)

Despite their tough situation, the young defectors said that they've realized that they are valuable people just for being themselves. They also presented their views on the meaning of the two Koreas' unification.

Park Jin-ho (an alias), a 22-year-old defector, said he felt a sense of unity when he interacted with South Korean students on a seven-day bike journey last month.

"We came to know each other better and became more intimate each day. The little integration we made turns into small steps toward unification," he said.

Jo Min-hee (an alias), a 19-year-old refugee, said that she believes that young defectors like her can play an important role in preparing for unification.

"Once unification occurs, we will be the most important human resources in every workplace. ... Even though Korean society still has cold eyes on us, I believe we are the future of a unified Korea," she stressed.

Cho Yoon-jae said that he dreams of walking on roads beyond the military demarcation line that bisects the two Koreas and of crossing a bridge linking the North and China over the Tumen River.

Cho, who won first prize at the contest, said that he came up with that idea because it is regrettable that families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War have not been able to meet each other for so long.

"When we become one again, I want the world to know the true meaning of unification: That is to bring healing to the wounded and to become one in the midst of differences," he added.

sooyeon@yna.co.kr

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