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[Herald Interview] Young NK defectors’ school hopes dashed

Yeomyung School Principal Lee Heung-hoon speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald inside the classroom in Jung-gu, central Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Yeomyung School Principal Lee Heung-hoon speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald inside the classroom in Jung-gu, central Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)


Students of Yeomyung School, an alternative high school for young North Korean defectors, had high hopes for the school’s relocation plan.
 
In a new location with a new building, they would have more spacious classrooms and a real playground with enough space to kick a ball during recess.
 
But those dreams were dashed late last year.
 
Met with strong resistance from residents in Eunpyeong-gu, a largely residential district in northern Seoul where the school was set to go up, the moving plan has been suspended. 
  
Residents have claimed that the 2,143-square-meter plot owned by the city-run SH Corp. should be used for locals, not for “outsiders.” Some were even more candid, saying the school for North Korean refugees was an “unwanted” addition to their neighborhood.
 
“It is saddening to think that we may never be accepted because of our (students’) background,” the school’s principal Lee Heung-hoon told The Korea Herald in an interview. “Students felt they were unwelcome. They were disappointed because many were really looking forward to the move.”
 
Currently, the 16-year-old school is in a narrow three-story commercial building that stands along a stretch of tonkatsu restaurants on the hilly foot of Namsan in central Seoul. The lease contract is to expire next February.
 
Lee said the school has no alternative as of yet, and hopes for a revival of the Eunpyeong plan.
 
“If the (Eunpyeong) district office does not allow the (proposed) zoning change (for the construction of a school building at the site), the project can’t go on,” he said.
 
The school’s trouble epitomizes a harsh reality faced by North Korean defectors in South Korean society.
 
“Generous heart and accepting others that are different is what I think is to have a mature society,” the educator said. “Real unification will come when we can harmoniously live with North Koreans.” 
 
Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, more than 33,000 North Koreans have resettled here in the South, with the majority of them coming in the last two decades, according to the Unification Ministry.
 
Of them, 2,500 students are enrolled at conventional schools, while around 230 are spread out across nine alternative schools exclusively for North Korean defectors, according to the Education Ministry.
   
Yeomyung School in Jung-gu, central Seoul (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Yeomyung School in Jung-gu, central Seoul (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Yeomyung, whose name means “dawn” in Korean and which has around 80 students and 13 faculty members, is the only alternative school in Seoul certified by the Education Ministry to award a high school diploma.
 
Despite a history of resettlement, youth arriving from the North identify negative stereotypes and prejudice as the hardest parts of life across the border, he added.
 
“A lot of students at public schools decide not to disclose their identities or backgrounds, afraid of being teased or regarded as different,” he said. “Some students adjust well, but there are others who find it difficult to keep up with this rigorous, ultracompetitive system due to a lack of education back in North Korea.”
 
That’s where alternative schools like Yeomyung come in.
 
“The biggest advantage for Yeomyung is that we provide learning experiences that tailor all different levels of students,” he said.
 
The overall curriculum is similar to other public schools here in order to prepare students for college. But it is done in consideration of students’ individual backgrounds, as some may have missed years of schooling for economic reasons or due to their arduous journeys as refugees.
 
Besides regular classes, the school also offers special classes and programs, such as classes on transitioning into South Korean society, a job shadowing program, community service, reading classes and summer English and science camps.
 
“We also teach and encourage students to make their own decisions, and take responsibility,” he said. “Often case, the students were not used to making decisions, as they were used to living under (Communist) party rule. But in Korea, individual choices and responsibility are critical parts of life.”
 
Despite recently stalled inter-Korean relations, Lee believes his students can play a pivotal role bridging the two Koreas that have been separated for decades.
 
“They can set a precedent as North Koreans living in the South peacefully, and when reunified, they will be able to reconcile the differences between the two distinct regimes,” he said. 
 
“I hope the students live with confidence here and take a leading role in reunification in the future.”
 
By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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