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Students Crossing the Korean Divide

Asia: An intensive summer program tries to integrate defectors into Southern society.


SEOUL — The teachers had been warned that their summer school students might have strange ideas, but science instructor Park Myong Suk was still flabbergasted when several approached her with a particular concern.

Was it true that the Earth could be split in two, the students asked. When Park demanded to know where they had gotten such a preposterous idea, they quoted a saying of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il that his people, if united, could be strong enough to do anything--even to divide the planet.

Of course, these were no ordinary students and this no regular summer school. The youths, ages 14 to 18, were North Koreans who had recently defected from their homeland.

During a three-week intensive program, 26 teachers and 32 volunteers coach a small number of students--the latest class graduated just 22. It may seem like too much attention to lavish on the group, but their success or failure is of importance here: The school is, in effect, a laboratory for determining whether Northerners can be integrated into South Korean society after more than half a century of enmity between the nations.

On Wednesday, the school held a graduation ceremony for the latest class at a secluded conference center in Seoul. Normally secretive because of concerns about security for defectors, the school made a rare exception to a "no media" policy and permitted a reporter to attend the ceremony on the condition that the students not be interviewed.

In their baggy jeans and sneakers, the youths looked like any other students exchanging gifts and saying their goodbyes at the end of a semester. But teachers and others said the teens are worlds apart from their Westernized counterparts in South Korea and face an extraordinary struggle to close the gap.

"They have a lot of problems studying in regular [South Korean] schools. They find it difficult to catch up with classmates and difficult to make friends," said Benjamin H. Yoon, head of the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, a nonprofit group in Seoul that runs the school.

The program was started three years ago after South Korea began experiencing an influx of defectors--mostly families who had fled the famine in the North by first crossing into China. Before the mid-1990s, most defectors were unaccompanied men, often soldiers or diplomats.

It wasn't long before educators started remarking that the North Korean children not only were smaller than their counterparts here--the result of poor nutrition--but lagged behind in school in virtually every subject.

The educators had anticipated difficulties with subjects such as political science and history because, as Yoon noted, "their interpretation of history is different from South Korea's."

But more surprising was how far apart the language had drifted in the 50 years since the Korean peninsula was divided by politics and war. The Northerners couldn't understand most of the borrowed English words that now pepper speech in the South.

"They have a very hard time with the language," Yoon said, "and even in the sciences and math, there is a lot of terminology they do not understand."

Hwa Jeong Bum, a 26-year-old graduate student in Korean literature who had volunteered at the summer school, added: "It's not just that they don't understand us. I was surprised how difficult it is for us to understand what they're saying. They use different words."

Although North Korea boasts of free schooling and nearly universal literacy, educators in the South discovered that many children had skipped school during periods of severe famine to forage for food. They lost more years of education after escaping to China, where many lived clandestinely before coming to South Korea.

As a result, the North Koreans now attending schools in the South are usually placed in classes with students who are several years younger. But Yoon, the program's chief, said many of the students are extremely bright. He recalled one boy who got into one of South Korea's top universities, despite missing five years of study while in China.

To help the students catch up, the summer school provides a crammed agenda. Classes in science, math, history, Korean and English run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The students, who live on campus during the term, spend much of their time outside of class studying.

It is not only a matter of teaching the students, but of undoing some of the damage caused by their spending their formative years in a totalitarian state, educators say.

"The ideology of North Korea is still deeply rooted in their minds," said science teacher Park, recalling her befuddlement with her students' questions about the Earth. "They lack the imagination of the South Korean students. I blame that on the totalitarian way of teaching."

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