Young North Korean defectors find new life in the South

Five years ago, as young boys, they crossed a frozen river in the dark of winter. As they passed from North Korea into China, they didn’t yet understand that they were leaving their homes for good. More than 6,000 miles later, Park Kwon’s and Ju Cheol Kwang’s separate trek to freedom brought them to South Korea, where they met as roommates in a group home for other young North Korean defectors.

“It is more comfortable [in South Korea],” Cheol Kwang said through a translator, “but sometimes I think of my hometown. That can be difficult.” Their childhoods have been on their minds lately, with the announcement earlier this month of unprecedented summits between North and South Korean leaders, and President Donald Trump that could happen this spring. For the teenagers, the talks raise long-buried hopes of someday being reunited with their families.

The friends, now 16, have worked hard to adjust to their new lives in Seoul. Like other recent defectors, they face a more difficult reality than those who arrived to the South even one or two decades earlier. They must contend with rapidly evolving technology and a highly competitive labor market that requires them to match their peers in one of the most wired countries on the planet.

“South Korea is a completely different society,” said Ji Cheol-ho, a 32-year-old North Korean defector. If you don’t study, you won’t understand this society, and if you don’t understand South Korean society, you’ll never become part of it.”

Cheol Kwang and Kwon live with several other boys in the group home they share in suburban Seoul. Adapting to school has been difficult. “What a North Korean sixth-grader learned in math or languages is the equivalent for a South Korean fourth-grader”, says Kwon. “My teachers and tutors have been saying, ‘Now is the time you have to really start studying,'” he said.

Ki-won Chun, a pastor whose faith-based Durihana Mission has rescued more than 1,100 North Korean refugees from China since 1999, said “It can only be difficult for these children, because they were born into a completely different culture.”   Read more

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