Pak Sool is one of nearly 100 North Korean students at the Yeomyung school in Seoul, a place designed to teach those new to South Korean society. The school is funded largely by donations from Christian groups and all the teachers are Christian, although the curriculum is not religiously focused.
During a recent biology class at the school, the students joked and misbehaved like any group of teenagers, but there were moments that exposed the trauma they have escaped. When the teacher turned to explanations of different types of animals, a picture of a frog flashes on a screen.
“We used to eat that because we were so hungry in North Korea,” one student says. “We don’t just eat the back legs, we eat everything, it’s very delicious.”
It was an unsentimental statement, said matter of factly, but it betrayed a hardship that few of his South Korean counterparts would ever experience.
“They can be smiling and laughing during the day and then at night still be haunted by nightmares,” says Hwang Heui-gun, a teacher at the school. “But they can’t talk about it, it’s too painful.”
Severe economic disparities between the two neighbors also play out in the classroom. Some students are forced to drop out and find work in order to send money to family members back in North Korea or contribute to their journey to the South.