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North Korean refugees speak out: 'My Hanawon experience' (3)

Hanawon. Korea Times file
Hanawon. Korea Times file

On July 8, 1999, the South Korean government opened the Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees, often referred to as "Hanawon." In the past two decades, more than 32,000 North Korean refugees have made it to South Korea, with almost every refugee passing through Hanawon. In the lead-up to a July 7 forum marking Hanawon's 20th anniversary, TNKR began asking North Korean refugees about their Hanawon experiences. This is part 3. Please check here for parts
1 and 2. ― ED.
Casey Lartigue Jr.
Casey Lartigue Jr.

Jihyun, female, escaped from North Korea in 2012, arrived in South Korea in 2017

Hanawon was so good. It was really a great introduction to life in South Korea. I learned so many things. There were so many people there from different parts of North Korea.

I was never bored when I was there. The program was so good. It seemed that every day I was getting shocked and surprised about things I was learning about South Korea. The best part was when we were allowed to visit a South Korean home. We got to learn about life here. I enjoyed that so much and will never forget it.

I had seen South Korea in so many TV dramas, a few when I was in the North and many when I was in China. And it was really happening, I was in a South Korean home, I was meeting South Koreans directly. Sometimes I felt that I was in a movie.

My tough time came after I left Hanawon. Suddenly I was by myself. I didn't have any family here, so it was a tough time.

I had spent five years in China, so things weren't completely new to me. One thing I didn't learn at Hanawon that they should stress is the importance of contracts. In North Korea, you can just ignore the law, the person with the most power will win a dispute. When I escaped from China to South Korea, I signed a contract agreeing to pay the broker 3 million won. I learned later that he hadn't really done that much, just made some phone calls, so I thought it was enough if I just paid back 2 million won. He sued me and I lost. Losing that case woke me up to the reality of South Korean law, contracts, so now I study things before I get involved. I'm so careful now and review everything carefully and always keep my word.

Overall, I have adjusted well, even though it has been a short time. I am enjoying life here. I still wish that people would not ask me about life in North Korea. I had a terrible time there, I don't have good memories of life there. I don't want to be reminded about things. After I get to know people then I am fine with telling them that I'm from North Korea, otherwise I just join with others and try to be a good friend.

Seong-Chol, male, escaped from North Korea in 2004, arrived in South Korea in 2004.

My mother had escaped first. She was already good at the market, so she thought she could make money in South Korea to rescue the rest of us. After my father died, I was living on the streets, so it was a very difficult time. I wanted to find my mom, so I had to escape from North Korea, even though I was so young. During my escape the broker was able to find my mother. She did everything she could to bring me here.

I stayed in Hanawon for only a week. I only remember that I fought with the other boys in Hanawon, then I joined my mother.

It took me a long time to say openly that I am from North Korea. It wasn't until last year that I could say it without being embarrassed. For a long time, I avoided North Korean things. I was young, so being in North Korea, China, or South Korea didn't really make a difference to me. But then I began to hide my identity because I was getting ridiculed in school.

Sometimes I wonder if things had been different if I had stayed in Hanawon longer, but I think it was better for me to be with my mother. It has taken me some time to get used to talking about North Korea. After I began to open up, I had so many people asking me for interviews and to tell my story. But I'm still not ready for those things, even after 15 years.

Heejung, female, escaped from North Korea in 2014, arrived in South Korea in 2015.

There were many rules at Hanawon, but at first it seemed understandable because there was constant concern about spies hiding among us. But after the intense security check, another three months seemed to be too long. I couldn't understand after answering so many questions why I couldn't leave. Questions, questions, it seemed to be endless questions at Hanawon. Sometimes I wasn't sure if it was just their curiosity or if they were trying to catch me in a lie.

I know there are security concerns, but the focus on security and digging for information out of us causes many North Korean refugees to hate the transition. For one month in Thailand, three months with the national security check, three months at Hanawon, so for more than half a year, we get treated as potential spies, unable to leave the centers, no freedom of movement. I had escaped for freedom, but that was not happening.

After getting released from Hanawon I had a really difficult time at first. I didn't have any friends; my North Korean accent was strong, so people could quickly figure out where I was from. The first year, I was depressed and complaining at my mom for bringing me to South Korea.

In North Korea, because of our family background, I wasn't able to get accepted to a good university, but I still thought I could have made a good life there. During my first year here, I thought about returning to North Korea. It just seemed that the life was simpler there. In South Korea, I felt stress everywhere I went. South Koreans put so much pressure on themselves and each other. Many people here get angry about many small things. If I couldn't go back to North Korea, it seemed that I needed to return to Hanawon, the life there was easier.

Things are much better now, but sometimes I still feel depressed. It bothers me a little that people still want to interview me about so many aspects of North Korea, but it seems most of them aren't listening. They want me to answer their questions and say certain things, to put me in categories. If I say something negative about reunification, then so many people think it means reunification will not be possible because they think I am representative of all North Koreans. I'm just one person with my own experience.

The government agencies, media, researchers, TV shows, so many people want to analyze every aspect of my life in North Korea. When I get requests for interviews from people I don't know, it reminds me of my time in Hanawon and the endless interviews. I have arrived here, I appreciate the help I have received from South Korea, it is my freedom country. I do wish they could balance their need for specific information on every refugee with our need for privacy.


Casey Lartigue Jr., co-founder of the Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center, was the 2017 winner of the "Social Contribution" Prize from the Hansarang Rural Cultural Foundation and was recently named the 2019 winner of the "Challenge Maker" Award from Challenge Korea. TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee translated the remarks of refugees from Korean to English.


Hanawon. Korea Times file
Hanawon. Korea Times file

On July 8, 1999, the South Korean government opened the Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees, often referred to as "Hanawon." In the past two decades, more than 32,000 North Korean refugees have made it to South Korea, with almost every refugee passing through Hanawon. In the lead-up to a July 7 forum marking Hanawon's 20th anniversary, TNKR began asking North Korean refugees about their Hanawon experiences. This is part 3. Please check here for parts
1 and 2. ― ED.
Casey Lartigue Jr.
Casey Lartigue Jr.

Jihyun, female, escaped from North Korea in 2012, arrived in South Korea in 2017

Hanawon was so good. It was really a great introduction to life in South Korea. I learned so many things. There were so many people there from different parts of North Korea.

I was never bored when I was there. The program was so good. It seemed that every day I was getting shocked and surprised about things I was learning about South Korea. The best part was when we were allowed to visit a South Korean home. We got to learn about life here. I enjoyed that so much and will never forget it.

I had seen South Korea in so many TV dramas, a few when I was in the North and many when I was in China. And it was really happening, I was in a South Korean home, I was meeting South Koreans directly. Sometimes I felt that I was in a movie.

My tough time came after I left Hanawon. Suddenly I was by myself. I didn't have any family here, so it was a tough time.

I had spent five years in China, so things weren't completely new to me. One thing I didn't learn at Hanawon that they should stress is the importance of contracts. In North Korea, you can just ignore the law, the person with the most power will win a dispute. When I escaped from China to South Korea, I signed a contract agreeing to pay the broker 3 million won. I learned later that he hadn't really done that much, just made some phone calls, so I thought it was enough if I just paid back 2 million won. He sued me and I lost. Losing that case woke me up to the reality of South Korean law, contracts, so now I study things before I get involved. I'm so careful now and review everything carefully and always keep my word.

Overall, I have adjusted well, even though it has been a short time. I am enjoying life here. I still wish that people would not ask me about life in North Korea. I had a terrible time there, I don't have good memories of life there. I don't want to be reminded about things. After I get to know people then I am fine with telling them that I'm from North Korea, otherwise I just join with others and try to be a good friend.

Seong-Chol, male, escaped from North Korea in 2004, arrived in South Korea in 2004.

My mother had escaped first. She was already good at the market, so she thought she could make money in South Korea to rescue the rest of us. After my father died, I was living on the streets, so it was a very difficult time. I wanted to find my mom, so I had to escape from North Korea, even though I was so young. During my escape the broker was able to find my mother. She did everything she could to bring me here.

I stayed in Hanawon for only a week. I only remember that I fought with the other boys in Hanawon, then I joined my mother.

It took me a long time to say openly that I am from North Korea. It wasn't until last year that I could say it without being embarrassed. For a long time, I avoided North Korean things. I was young, so being in North Korea, China, or South Korea didn't really make a difference to me. But then I began to hide my identity because I was getting ridiculed in school.

Sometimes I wonder if things had been different if I had stayed in Hanawon longer, but I think it was better for me to be with my mother. It has taken me some time to get used to talking about North Korea. After I began to open up, I had so many people asking me for interviews and to tell my story. But I'm still not ready for those things, even after 15 years.

Heejung, female, escaped from North Korea in 2014, arrived in South Korea in 2015.

There were many rules at Hanawon, but at first it seemed understandable because there was constant concern about spies hiding among us. But after the intense security check, another three months seemed to be too long. I couldn't understand after answering so many questions why I couldn't leave. Questions, questions, it seemed to be endless questions at Hanawon. Sometimes I wasn't sure if it was just their curiosity or if they were trying to catch me in a lie.

I know there are security concerns, but the focus on security and digging for information out of us causes many North Korean refugees to hate the transition. For one month in Thailand, three months with the national security check, three months at Hanawon, so for more than half a year, we get treated as potential spies, unable to leave the centers, no freedom of movement. I had escaped for freedom, but that was not happening.

After getting released from Hanawon I had a really difficult time at first. I didn't have any friends; my North Korean accent was strong, so people could quickly figure out where I was from. The first year, I was depressed and complaining at my mom for bringing me to South Korea.

In North Korea, because of our family background, I wasn't able to get accepted to a good university, but I still thought I could have made a good life there. During my first year here, I thought about returning to North Korea. It just seemed that the life was simpler there. In South Korea, I felt stress everywhere I went. South Koreans put so much pressure on themselves and each other. Many people here get angry about many small things. If I couldn't go back to North Korea, it seemed that I needed to return to Hanawon, the life there was easier.

Things are much better now, but sometimes I still feel depressed. It bothers me a little that people still want to interview me about so many aspects of North Korea, but it seems most of them aren't listening. They want me to answer their questions and say certain things, to put me in categories. If I say something negative about reunification, then so many people think it means reunification will not be possible because they think I am representative of all North Koreans. I'm just one person with my own experience.

The government agencies, media, researchers, TV shows, so many people want to analyze every aspect of my life in North Korea. When I get requests for interviews from people I don't know, it reminds me of my time in Hanawon and the endless interviews. I have arrived here, I appreciate the help I have received from South Korea, it is my freedom country. I do wish they could balance their need for specific information on every refugee with our need for privacy.


Casey Lartigue Jr., co-founder of the Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center, was the 2017 winner of the "Social Contribution" Prize from the Hansarang Rural Cultural Foundation and was recently named the 2019 winner of the "Challenge Maker" Award from Challenge Korea. TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee translated the remarks of refugees from Korean to English.



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