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Campus Talk: North Korean Refugee Freshmen Adjusting to Life on Campus

May 3, 2011

“My heart hurts and I feel suffocated, I mean because they have no idea what kind of pain North Koreans go through just to survive from day to day. If they were to think just a little from North Koreans’ point of view they would lose their indifference toward North Korea.”

The following discussion appeared in the May 2011 issue of NK Vision magazine. Translation courtesy of NKnet volunteer Tom Stearns.

Date: April 7, 2011, 4 p.m.
Location: NK Vision Conference Room
Interviewer: Kang Won Cheol, NK Vision Reporter
Participants: Jang — — (Ewha Womans University, Nutrition Science major, entered South Korea in 2008)
Kim — — (Eulji University, International Culinary Studies major, entered South Korea in 2006)

“New beginnings” are not as easy as they sound. New beginnings are only possible through one’s will and effort. That first step is sure to shape future outcomes—for better or for worse—depending on the person’s viewpoint and state of mind. That’s why we send these students off on new beginnings, with so many things ahead of them, with a big round of applause and encouragement. Today among those making a new beginning are refugees starting their first year of university. While their South Korean peers, at such a tender young age, cannot imagine the unique experiences these refugee students have had, there is a growing interest in understanding. The refugee students face the special challenge of “catching two rabbits at once”: experiencing the university student lifestyle for the first time, and settling into life in South Korea, which is totally different from North Korea. Like the freshness of a breeze on a spring day, our refugee students entering university in 2011 took the time to sit down with NK Vision and lay out their dreams during this period of adjustment to campus life. – Editor

While adjusting to South Korea, which is totally different from North Korea, must have been difficult. What motivated you to go to university? Do you feel that going to university is the opportunity to take on an even larger hurdle?

Ms. Jang: When I first came to South Korea, I was glowing with confidence. I had great expectations that I could do anything I wanted to do. But that’s not how it really was. It took all my courage to call phone numbers I would see on job advertisements, but I was rejected every time. My accent from North Hamkyong Province was also a problem. They would ask me where I was from, and whenever I said “North Korea,” they would say “We don’t employ North Koreans” and hang up. Every time that happened, I got frustrated and it made me feel like there was nothing I was capable of doing with my skills. Meanwhile, I began working as a housekeeper, a job I was just barely introduced to through an acquaintance. I felt joy because for the first time in my life I was earning money for myself for the work I had done, but I felt a great pain, too. During the 4 or 5 months that I worked like this, washing dishes and doing laundry, one thought stayed in my mind: I can never be more than a housekeeper with no family and no skills. So I made the resolution that I needed to go to school and study.

Mr. Kim: I graduated from Hangyeore High School, which is an alternative high school for refugee youths. When I was in North Korea, I lost my parents and so I couldn’t study properly, and it wasn’t until I got to Hangyeore High School that I began to study properly. I hadn’t even thought about going on to university, I just graduated and came out into the world without anything worth doing on my own. I worked at various part time jobs, moving companies, package delivery companies, and so on, and then through a police officer’s introduction I ended up getting a job at a “Cheers” franchise restaurant. Cooking food in the restaurant over the course of one year brought me to realize many different things, the biggest being that I needed to go back to school and study more. I came to South Korea and finished high school, but the desire to challenge myself to go to university appeared.

Settling down in South Korea and going on to university are two different, challenging things, like trying to “catch two rabbits at one time.” What kind of effort and preparation were required for you to go to university?

Mr. Kim: As I mentioned earlier, when I was going to Hangyeore High School I didn’t even think at all about how I would need to go to university. My homeroom teacher advised me that even if I just went to a junior college I should go, but it didn’t change my thinking. I had many reasons why I thought I wouldn’t go to university, one of which was financial hardship. Thinking that I should earn a little money, I began working and while I was learning how to cook in the kitchen, that desire to further challenge myself appeared. Because I would always work until late, when I did have spare time I couldn’t study. I put all my confidence into the interview and I think maybe my zealousness looked positive to the interviewers.

Ms. Jang: Back when I was going to school in North Korea, I thought I was doing my best in school and I had no fear when it came to studying. But South Korea’s school curriculum was totally different and the level was much higher. Aware of my skills, I still thought I should go to a regular school. But even if I’d gone in two years below my grade I wouldn’t have had the courage to keep up with the curriculum. All the worrying led me to go to a church-run school specifically set up to help refugees prepare for getting into university. During that time receiving one-on-one private lessons and working hard to prepare for university, purely by chance I enrolled in a cooking school, supported by SK (a major conglomerate), called “Dream Chef.” Learning how to cook and working together with South Korean students who had been recommended from municipal high schools all around the country, made me realize that I had an interest in cooking. The 50 of us who’d studied together took a test but I was the only one who received certification and I gained the confidence that if I worked hard, I too could succeed.

Can you tell us about why you selected your current school and major, if there is a specific reason.

Ms. Jang: At first I prepared to study nursing. When I was younger my dream was to become a doctor. While I was growing up, I would see my mother who was constantly sick, and so I thought I should become a doctor. And when I came to Korea knowing nothing at all I ended up thinking I wanted to face the challenge of realizing that dream from when I was younger. But while studying at the cooking school I came to realize that I had an aptitude for cooking, and I realized that there’s a wide range of things to study in this field. When we cook, we really don’t know what nutrients are in the ingredients or how to make the food good for people’s health. I chose this field of study out of a desire to research those things and make dishes with the flavor, nutrition and presentation all perfectly prepared.

Mr. Kim: Choosing what subject to study was quite difficult. Because I really didn’t study well, I really wanted to apply to a somewhat easier department. The main reason why I chose to study International Culinary Studies was because of the extreme hunger I experienced in North Korea. Losing my parents at a young age meant that food was always scarce and I couldn’t just eat whatever I wanted. I chose this field of study because if I had a career in cooking, I wouldn’t go hungry. Also, cooking in a restaurant is so enjoyable and interesting. And also, I applied to Eulji University because it’s close to my house and getting there is easy, and because my boss at the restaurant where I work recommended that in any case if I’m going to study I should lean towards cooking.

Usually when students go to Freshman Orientation or “MT,” they are expected to introduce themselves. Were you concerned about letting everybody else know that you came from North Korea? Or were you more inclined to let them know your background without hesitation?

Ms. Jang: I was inclined to tell them I am from North Korea, honestly. In the past I’ve felt ashamed about being born in North Korea because of the ordeals I went through when I first came to South Korea, but my confidence has been restored and it’s not a problem at all anymore. I think being born in North Korea is a plus, and never a minus. Whenever I have the chance to introduce myself, not only to my classmates but to teammates, etc., I confidently let them know that I come from Hamkyong Province. When I do that, they think it’s wonderful and amazing and they ask me all the usual questions people ask about North Korea. I could hide my identity and carry on as an ordinary female South Korean university student. But there’s no such thing as an eternal secret, and if I lied to everyone, even to myself, about who I am, well, it’s university life, and I think that if I don’t introduce myself more assertively, I won’t be able to meet any true friends.

Mr. Kim: I haven’t been able to reveal that I’m from North Korea yet. When the two soldiers and two civilians died in the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, it was so difficult for me. Everyone at my work knows that I’m from North Korea. And after the Yeonpyeong Island incident occurred, it was really distressing every time any of my coworkers would say things to me like, “Why would your country’s people do this!” or “Hey, you should give Kim Jong Il a call!” I even felt guilty. So after going through an ordeal like this, I ended up thinking it would be more helpful for my university life not to let others know that I’m from North Korea. So still, among my classmates there are some people who ask me where I’m from when they hear my accent, but I always laugh and pass it off, saying that I have a Yanbian accent because I lived in China when I was younger. I’m not sure if I’ll always keep it a secret, but as of yet I don’t want them to know.

One of the things freshman look forward to most when they become university students is choosing to participate in student organizations and clubs. Are there any student groups that you’re currently a part of?

Ms. Jang: I’m not formally participating in any student groups yet, but I want to challenge myself to experience one that is related to a new area of interest, not one I already know. I’m tone-deaf when it comes to music and singing, so I’d like to get involved with a student group where I can learn music. With the help of my friend, I’m learning to play the flute right now, but I’ve been thinking that I’d like to learn a little more actively through one of the student groups.

Mr. Kim: I’m studying International Cuisine, but I’d also like to try joining a student group in another area of interest. I was looking for a place where I could get some exercise and have fun, so one of my classmates and I signed up for the table-tennis club together. But after going a few times, I was really disappointed. You know the sign says “table tennis club” but I’ve come to think it’s just a “drinking club” for drinking alcohol. So now I’m thinking about other clubs. There’s a Korean cuisine club, but they said they meet 3 times a week to practice cooking. It’s kind of burdensome having to invest so much time, but if I were given more free time, I’d like to sign up for the Korean cuisine club.

In reality, South Korean students pay very little attention to North Korea. What do you think when you observe South Korean students who act this way?

Mr. Kim: When I see university students who are indifferent about North Korea, it makes me think that the possibility of reunification is getting slimmer and slimmer. To all of us refugees who wish to return to our hometowns as soon as possible, it’s a reality that simply hurts. I’m saying that our younger generation needs to take enthusiastic action. But the cause for this kind of phenomenon is not the university students’ fault. I think at the same time students have not received proper education about North Korea. While I was at Hangyeore High School, I went out to many different middle and high schools as a “Reunification Guide” to talk about North Korea, but what I felt every time was that they really did not know anything about North Korea. We are constantly crying out for reunification, but it doesn’t really make sense to try to reunify if people don’t properly know anything about the land where we live. I think that the way for us to turn away from indifference and back to an interest in North Korea is to start education about North Korea from an early age, and I think one hour a week, though not much, is necessary.

Ms. Jang: My heart hurts and I feel suffocated, I mean because they have no idea what kind of pain North Koreans go through just to survive from day to day. If they were to think just a little from North Koreans’ point of view they would lose their indifference toward North Korea. I think what will make the future of Korea darker is the attitudes of these apathetic university students, who are expected to become the bastions of reunification of the Korean peninsula. In order to properly prepare for reunification people should properly understand North Korea. Now that I think about it, we refugee university students are also to blame for this phenomenon. We, who know the North Korean situation well, should more assertively make it known to every one we know in our schools and neighborhoods, but we rarely do. From now on, I’ll think, “It’s something I have to do, isn’t it?”

What would your friends from back when you were a student in North Korea think if they knew that you were attending university in South Korea?

Ms. Jang: Their reactions would be different depending on what kind of relationship I had with them at that time. This may sound like I’m bragging but back when I was a student in North Korea I was very active and my academic record was outstanding. I always had so many good friends around me, so I think if they found out that I was studying at a university in South Korea they would applaud me. Some people might criticize me for leaving my hometown behind and escaping to South Korea, a country that’s considered our enemy, but I think most of my friends would understand me. I should be more enthusiastic about university life, so as to live up to my friends’ expectations of me. I should do my best to study hard and experience university life so that after reunification, when I go back to my hometown, I can honorably meet my friends.

Mr. Kim: I think they might be pretty jealous and also surprised. In North Korea I lost my parents so early on that I didn’t go to school beyond first grade of elementary school. In order to eat and survive at that young age I worked to make money. I worked in the marketplace and I even dug coal in the mines and sold it. In order to survive I desperately worked to earn money so studying was the farthest thing from my mind, and I couldn’t even read or write Korean until after I left China. I didn’t receive any formal education in North Korea so as such I had no dreams, so naturally they would be pretty surprised to hear that I’ve started university. I, too, like Ms. Jang, feel a great deal of responsibility. Rather than feeling ashamed when I think of my friends back in North Korea, I want to make university life worthwhile and spend my time here meaningfully.

Having gotten your education from high school on in South Korea and having experienced democracy and the market economy, is there anything you want to go into North Korea and do after reunification?

Mr. Kim: I never used to have dreams. But now as I study cooking and study at university, a dream has appeared. That is to go straight back to my hometown and open a store in my name, not a small store but a franchise store. I’m not sure if I even think it’s possible but I believe that, like everything I’ve done up until now, if I steadily do my best, my dream will get closer to becoming a reality. If there were one more thing I’d want to do, it’s that after experiencing life in South Korea I’d want to become for the people of my hometown a guide to the South Korean systems of democracy and market economics. As it was with me, I think when other North Koreans come to South Korea after reunification the level of confusion and fear they experience will be considerable. Since narrowing the gap between South Korean and North Korean people is the way to true reunification of the peninsula, I want to work to actively educate people about South Korean society.

Ms. Jang: I want to do something related to the major I’m currently studying. It’s a fact that reunification is drawing closer to us, but I think it will be hard to accomplish in a short time. So during the remaining time before reunification I’ll accumulate knowledge, abilities and experience and when I go back to my hometown I want my work to contribute to North Korean children’s nutrition and development. Right now in North Korea countless children aren’t getting enough nutrients and so are exposed to illness and disease, right? I believe that we’ll need people who can rectify the problem and improve the situation. I’m not the right person for the job yet, so I’ll study harder.

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