PSCORE’s Kim Young Il: One-on-One Classes Improve Refugees’ English Skills and Confidence
May 22, 2013
Beginning in October 2006, PSCORE (People for Successful Corean Unification, 성공적인 통일을 만들어가는 사람들, 성통만사) has run a customized one-on-one educational support program for North Korean refugees now residing in South Korea. Many of them had their education interrupted by the collapse of the education system during the famine in North Korea and while living in hiding in China. The following article appeared on pages 52-55 of the January 2013 issue of NK Vision magazine. Translation courtesy of NKnet intern Nova Mercier.
From a psychologically traumatic past to a new life full of study and work worries
PSCORE’s executive director, Kim Young Il (36), believes that educational support helps students who find it hard to see progress in their studies solve issues relating to ”what to do.” However, this kind of support is also very effective in helping build self-confidence, as students come to realize that ”I, too, can do it.”
Kim has personally benefited from this type of one-on-one educational support. While working at a radio station broadcasting to North Korea (대북라디오방송) in 2006, he received free English lessons from a colleague. Realizing that others like him would probably also benefit from this kind of support, he decided to form a group. In a short space of time, Kim’s English skills improved greatly through ”free-talking” with foreigners. These days there are many young beneficiaries of the program who have surpassed Kim’s skill level.
Kim explains that the North Korean refugee experience is changing. When refugees first began to arrive in China they were often traumatized and did not know how or where to start a new life. Kim would see empty liquor bottles lined up in their rooms when he came to visit. These days, it is becoming more and more common for refugees to enter South Korea directly (without long stays in China). While in North Korea, many may have been exposed to South Korean culture through dramas. Others have shared their concerns about finding work or overseas study with friends even before leaving the Hanawon resettlement centre in the South.
Kim believes that outstanding results can be achieved when a student’s needs and a teacher’s drive are combined in a one-to-one format. This belief has now materialized with PSCORE, which now facilitates meetings between approximately 100 students and 100 teachers. Within a year of establishing PSCORE, four or five teams were in existence. Within five years that number expanded twenty-fold.
Kim shares a personal anecdote: “I had a friend who at first had a defensive personality. Within a year of one-on-one educational support he was more pleasant to be around and studied harder. My friend became a class officer, and when I witnessed him speaking freely with foreigners I realized that educational achievement was not the only benefit participants were gaining.”
While one-to-one tutoring usually occurs for two hours twice a week for a period of more than three months, there are plenty of other situations where the teacher-student relationship has lasted for more than a year, or even several years.
80% of applicants seek English support
Regardless of how much South Korean culture young refugees may have been exposed to in North Korea, they generally lag behind in terms of their social and cultural knowledge. As a result, catching up with their South Korean counterparts is no easy task. For this reason, some refugee youths lower their age by one year when applying to school.
According to refugee entry rates into South Korea, the number of youths entering during the last six years has quadrupled. Similarly, according to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, school drop-out rates amongst these youths were 10.8% in 2007, 6.1% in 2008, 4.9% in 2009 and 4.7% in 2010.
While these statistics indicate a diminishing number of drop-outs, they remain high when compared with the average drop-out rate, which is in the 1% range. Additionally, as students progress through the education system the drop-out rates increase. Based on 2010 statistics, the drop-out rate amongst elementary school students was 2.5%, middle school students 4.4%, and high school students 10.1%.
The pressurized environment in schools is one of the chief reasons for this discrepancy. In particular, there is a clear difference in English ability between refugee youths and South Korean youths. This reality is reflected in the educational needs of PSCORE’s applicants, 80% of whom request English language support.
There are also extreme cases where young refugees are learning English starting from their ABCs. This is not something that can be blamed solely on their schools. These days, English education is being implemented in elementary schools from second grade onwards. It is not surprising, then, that young refugees lament that “our starting points are different.”
While several educational programs exist at the Hanawon resettlement centre for refugees when they first arrive, they are insufficient. Those applying to PSCORE’s program are generally university students or those hoping to gain university entrance.
“Until just before they have to start applying for university entrance, they don’t think study is that important. Then as they reach university age, they find meaning in study,” Kim says.
The one-to-one program has been running for a few years, yet even now it is not actively promoted. The number of teachers and students is sufficiently maintained through the power of word of mouth. Yet in actuality, matching teachers and students is not as easy as it may appear.
Kim reveals that “…this work is very complicated. Until the point of achievement it takes a lot of effort, and is quite stressful. While matching two people based on a mutually agreeable time, day and subject is basic, there have been instances where some unrealistic demands have been made; for instance, that the teacher not be too old.”
PSCORE’s work does not end after a teacher and a student begin a one-on-one tutoring relationship. They may have to mediate in certain circumstances, such as when a teacher or a student without warning stops the class or does not show up, or when a student may misunderstand a well-meaning foreign teacher’s frequent phone calls. Kim notes that fortunately situations like this only constitute 1-2% of all cases.
Foreigners introducing Koreans to volunteer service
70% of the volunteers at PSCORE are foreigners. They may be foreign students or exchange students, overseas Koreans, native English teachers, teachers at private academies, or ordinary office workers. Native Korean volunteers are generally university students or school teachers who are available to teach their respective subjects.
Kim explains that foreigners who don’t get many opportunities to meet refugees tend to be very satisfied with the program, as they have the chance to learn about refugees as well as North Korean society. He adds there have even been instances where foreign volunteers who teach in academies or schools have persuaded their South Korean students to volunteer as well.
The affection between teachers and students often carries on into everyday life. Some foreigners have been introduced to North Korean food, or been out drinking together. There has also been a case where a foreigner moved into a spare room in the student’s house.
“Now we have two interns who are managing the volunteer teaching program. Even though we don’t advertise externally, we continually receive applications from both potential teachers and students. The interns are competent, but the work is overflowing.”
“Although this program is an activity representative of the goal of peaceful reunification, we don’t receive outside funding. The management ethos of the program is that we try to avoid this type of funding. In order to encourage recipients, scholarship foundations have a practice of gathering all recipients in one place and taking a group photo. But in our program, this would not work as tutoring takes place at either the teacher’s or the student’s house or in a coffee shop. This makes me think that outside interest would be very small.”
While PSCORE holds year-end parties for those students and teachers who have worked hard, Kim regrets that expressions of thanks are limited to a letter of appreciation.
The group also runs a one-to-one English tutoring class every Wednesday at the Seodaemun Police Station in Seoul. Here, exchange students from Yonsei University and graduate students from California are able to receive class credit by participating.
In addition to English, students are also able to get help in specific areas like math, science, computer skills and essay writing.
There are no age limits for students. Some parents enroll children as young as seven, so that they get as early a start as possible.
There are also sometimes instances of volunteers who come to tutor the younger sibling after the older brother has benefited from the tutoring.
“We are able to show clearly to others what can be achieved. I have seen the change in people as a direct result of participating in this program. Now, I feel a real sense of responsibility.” Kim further emphasizes that “…this work is something that I could never quit.”
The first North Korean human rights NGO to attain United Nations consultative status
2012 was a year to remember for PSCORE. Last July, they were the first North Korean human rights NGO to receive recognition from the United Nations Economic and Social Council (UN ECOSOC).
“That the activities of my group received official recognition internationally made me so happy. I also felt a huge sense of responsibility.”
Together with the United Nations Security Council, UN ECOSOC is one of the UN’s principal organs. In order to canvass the opinion of private level groups, NGOs who have met the necessary requirements are given consultative status.
The goal of UN ECOSOC is to solve current international problems related to economics, society, culture, education, leadership, and sanitation. Here, PSCORE has been bestowed representative status with regards to North Korea’s issues in these areas.
While the United Nations Human Rights Council deals with North Korean human rights problems, the UNHRC was originally among ECOSOC’s functioning committees and then branched off as a specialized entity.
Through its ECOSOC status, PSCORE is able to share their opinions regarding issues related to North Korea.
In September 2012, PSCORE also sent a delegation to Geneva to participate in the 21st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. While there, they unveiled their North Korean human rights campaign.
At the film screening facilities of the UN offices in Geneva, representatives of international organizations were invited to view the North Korean human rights movie ”48m.” Testimonies from refugees were also heard. The title ”48m” references the shortest distance between Ryanggang Province in North Korea (량강도), from which North Koreans risk their lives to escape, and the Jangbaekhyeon (장백현) area in China.
The film depicts the forcible repatriation of North Koreans from China, as well as brutal human rights abuses. Kim received thanks from several of the representatives, who said that while the international community often talks about human rights, not many are aware of the reality on the ground.
“Normally, groups with consultative status have 5-10 representatives attend their events. But at the film screening we had around 50 people from 10 different countries attend. It was a real success.”
In contrast with other North Korean human rights NGOs in South Korea, PSCORE is one step ahead. The point of difference that helped them attain ECOSOC status was their one-on-one education program and the advice and help of many foreign friends with experience with the UN and other international organizations. PSCORE is also planning to send a delegation to the UN in 2013.
Advocacy within South Korea is also a priority. Last October PSCORE organized a photo exhibition at Haeundae Beach, coinciding with the Busan International Film Festival.
Through this event, the magnitude of the North Korean human rights problem was effectively conveyed to both South Koreans and foreigners alike without having to venture overseas.
“In 2011 we had also hoped to hold an exhibition at the Busan International Film Festival but we were not able to secure a place. This year we traveled with North Korean refugees who were able to explain the photos, and say ‘I actually lived like this.’ Thanks to their vivid descriptions people showed a lot of interest.”
Lessons learned from German unification
PSCORE consistently conveys news about what is happening inside North Korea. With Kim Jong Un’s rise to power, Kim sums up North Korean public sentiment by saying, “North Koreans’ quality of life is the worst.”
“The currency reform that Kim Jong Un oversaw in 2009 was the latest in a sequence of plans to eliminate the effects of capitalism, just as the July 1, 2002, Economic Management Reform Measures were. If a young dictator is suddenly intending to seize power, very serious methods of control will be seen.”
Kim, who was born in Hamheung in the Hamgyeong province of North Korea, is greatly interested in the discrimination experienced by East Germans during the course of German reunification.
“During the German reunification process, the social and economic status of the exploited East Germans continued. During the reunification of the Korean peninsula, we have to make sure to avoid this kind of trial and error.”
Finally, Kim emphasizes that, “We have to undergo unification with rules and order, without violence or plunder of any kind. I feel it’s my personal duty to put effort and research into matters such as these.”
Tags: books & movies, Hanawon, July 1 Economic Management Reform Measure (2002), refugees / defectors, resettlement, UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC)
Filed under: *Interviews, *Korean Dream, *Working for Unification, No. 43 - Jan 2013