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North Korean refugees speak out: 'My Hanawon experience' (4)

Korea Times file
Korea Times file

More than 32,000 North Korean refugees have made it to South Korea, with almost every refugee passing through "Hanawon" since the first center opened on July 8, 1999. In the lead-up to a July 7 forum marking Hanawon's 20th anniversary, TNKR began asking North Korean refugees about their Hanawon experiences. Please check here for parts 1, 2 and 3. ― ED.


Sumin, female, escaped North Korea in 2008, arrived in South Korea in 2009

I read the previous blog posts about Hanawon, I am happy to share my experience with you. I hope you can destroy the Hanawon system. It is such a harmful and destructive way to introduce North Korean refugees to South Korean society.

I had been thrilled to know I was finally going to South Korea, but the Hanawon process exhausted and frustrated me.

Looking back, I feel that I was being brainwashed without choices to learn what interested me. In North Korea, the brainwashing was all consuming. In China, the pastor wanted us to follow his religion before he would help us escape to freedom, it seemed if we didn't believe 100% in what he was saying then he would threaten to keep us longer or the implied threat he could send us back to North Korea. At Hanawon, it seemed that I was being brainwashed again, even though I had arrived in freedom.

Things may have changed, but now it seems so strange that I wasn't allowed to use a computer at Hanawon. I'm sure security was the main concern, but after the National Intelligence Service investigation, shouldn't Hanawon be about adjustment? They had books and lectures for us, but it would have been great to give us the opportunity to use the Internet to learn about South Korean society and options. When I was released, I had things in my mind about South Korea, but no experience so it was like I had wasted three months hearing theoretical lectures.

The national intelligence check had been like prison with us being examined like potential criminals, so we had hoped Hanawon would be different. The difference was between prison and jail, so in that way Hanawon was better.

After going through the national intelligence check for a few months, we were taken in a big bus to go to Hanawon. I had to be from separated from my mom, I attended the school for refugee children inside Hanawon. They were teaching basic things at different levels, I learned the alphabet, third grade math although I was already a teenager. I probably attended school for a total of about three years when I was in North Korea. My first assignment at the school at Hanawon was to memorize 24 English words. I didn't know the alphabet at that point. I was very competitive, I wanted to get the presents they gave out for good scores. English was new to me, I would ask friends to pronounce the words in Korean, I think that's why pronunciation is still bad. I studied really hard, so that time there did give me time to learn proper study habits.

One of the first things they taught us was how to sit down in the classroom. I remember practicing how to sit down in a chair the way they taught us.

Hanawon gave us 20,000 won a month. There was a small market there. It was really good that I could eat ice cream there, I ate potato chips for the first time, but I thought they had cheated me because there was so much air in the bag.

Looking back, the program didn't seem useful, at times it even seemed useless. We had no freedom, no choices, we were just told what to do and we were still being investigated and interviewed to make sure we weren't spies.

I was still waiting for my freedom. I remember saying to myself: "I want to be free, free, free." Some of the others at Hanawon were also getting frustrated. We were tired of learning about South Korea in a classroom when we were in South Korea. It was like going to a class learning how to cook food, but never getting to eat. I can understand there should be an adjustment period, but it didn't seem to be practical. We were ready to dig in, to experience the "freedom country," to start our lives. For three months, I was learning about a country that was right outside my door.

Finally, we had a chance to go out on a tour of Seoul. We learned to use an ATM, bus card. I wish I could have tried some higher level things, such as opening a bank account. For the first time, I saw some of the things I had seen in South Korean dramas: The Han River, the 63 Building.

At Thailand, I had been thinking I would finally be free, but it had been more than half a year. "I want to be free, free, free, when can I be free?" We were all so frustrated together, some could barely sleep because they were so bored and agitated. The first thing I had learned was the national anthem. I felt South Korean. I almost cried, I really felt South Korean, I was at last feeling welcomed by the country. But the Hanawon process made me feel drained.

It seemed that the Hanawon process was draining us of the incredible energy we had when we first met South Koreans at the embassy in Thailand. We could not experience the outside world when we were in North Korea, but now in South Korea, we still couldn't experience it. Some people began to resent and even hate South Korea for putting them through the NIS and Hanawon process. We had no expectations about North Korea or China, but we had expected better treatment in South Korea, more respect for us as individuals.

Some of the South Koreans there were aware of our frustration, they kept saying Hanawon was a good program, but I think they could not see the context. The contents of the program were not the only thing. It was the questions, the investigation, the lack of freedom, the inability to experience South Korean society. The lectures might have been fine, but not to a person forced to listen for months.

There are some things that should have been different and I have heard they have made some changes. For example, when I was there, it was all South Koreans helping at Hanawon. I'm not saying they must all be North Koreans, but some could be useful. And not just the success stories, it is better to show the reality so it won't feel like we are being brainwashed.

Another thing I hope they have changed: They went overboard in trying to scare us about how competitive South Korea would be. I started to feel like a loser in South Korea even before I was released. Hanawon was warning us that South Korean students studied so hard, that I wouldn't be able to compete with them. They were telling us about North Korean refugees having trouble, committing crimes. True or not, it should have been North Korean refugees sharing those stories, within the context of their struggles, guilt about their families left behind, or their other particular situations we could identify with.

Perhaps they were trying to lower our expectations, but for many, it was demoralizing. They made South Koreans look like such giants. Some of us had been struggling so hard to get to freedom, then made to wait. Wait in China, wait in Mongolia or somewhere in southeast Asia, wait at NIS, wait at Hanawon. At every point, things were discouraging.

I heard a song by a South Korean lady: "I have a dream." She was saying that there are obstacles but you can overcome them. I was crying as I heard the song, I decided that I would do my best, so they can tell my story in the future as a successful case for North Korean refugees.

After I got out of Hanawon, my depression continued. I couldn't figure out why I was living, I had trouble remembering why I had escaped, and I considered suicide more than once. It was cold for me. It wasn't as cold as the North Korean government, Mongolian soldiers or Chinese police, but it was still a tough time. I was free, but I didn't know what to do with that freedom.

I looked back to North Korea: "What if I just go back to my old life? If someone chooses something for me, would that be better?" That made me think about freedom deeply.

After I got out of Hanawon, the discrimination and prejudice hit me hard. Even when I bought things, I felt humble, scared. South Koreans would ask, suspiciously: "Where are you from?" They would ask if I was Chinese or Korean Chinese. I started to feel more isolated. I wonder if refugees don't go through the Hanawon experience where they get beaten down if they would be better prepared for South Korean discrimination. When I first arrived at the NIS, I felt I could fly. But months of waiting, feeling so frustrated, getting beaten down, I lost confidence and energy, so it seemed that anything in South Korea could defeat me.

Things began to turn around, I found some nice people to mentor me, especially TNKR, so I gained confidence in myself. I am now a university student, happier than I have ever been and looking forward to taking advantage of the freedom I have now. The Hanawon process needs to be destroyed, officials need to be willing to talk with North Korean refugees and not be defensive. If it is still part of the security process, then they should admit that, maybe extend the security process, but when it is time to focus on adjustment, then focus on that so North Korean refugees can truly get prepared.

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 the refugee from Korean to English.


Korea Times file
Korea Times file

More than 32,000 North Korean refugees have made it to South Korea, with almost every refugee passing through "Hanawon" since the first center opened on July 8, 1999. In the lead-up to a July 7 forum marking Hanawon's 20th anniversary, TNKR began asking North Korean refugees about their Hanawon experiences. Please check here for parts 1, 2 and 3. ― ED.


Sumin, female, escaped North Korea in 2008, arrived in South Korea in 2009

I read the previous blog posts about Hanawon, I am happy to share my experience with you. I hope you can destroy the Hanawon system. It is such a harmful and destructive way to introduce North Korean refugees to South Korean society.

I had been thrilled to know I was finally going to South Korea, but the Hanawon process exhausted and frustrated me.

Looking back, I feel that I was being brainwashed without choices to learn what interested me. In North Korea, the brainwashing was all consuming. In China, the pastor wanted us to follow his religion before he would help us escape to freedom, it seemed if we didn't believe 100% in what he was saying then he would threaten to keep us longer or the implied threat he could send us back to North Korea. At Hanawon, it seemed that I was being brainwashed again, even though I had arrived in freedom.

Things may have changed, but now it seems so strange that I wasn't allowed to use a computer at Hanawon. I'm sure security was the main concern, but after the National Intelligence Service investigation, shouldn't Hanawon be about adjustment? They had books and lectures for us, but it would have been great to give us the opportunity to use the Internet to learn about South Korean society and options. When I was released, I had things in my mind about South Korea, but no experience so it was like I had wasted three months hearing theoretical lectures.

The national intelligence check had been like prison with us being examined like potential criminals, so we had hoped Hanawon would be different. The difference was between prison and jail, so in that way Hanawon was better.

After going through the national intelligence check for a few months, we were taken in a big bus to go to Hanawon. I had to be from separated from my mom, I attended the school for refugee children inside Hanawon. They were teaching basic things at different levels, I learned the alphabet, third grade math although I was already a teenager. I probably attended school for a total of about three years when I was in North Korea. My first assignment at the school at Hanawon was to memorize 24 English words. I didn't know the alphabet at that point. I was very competitive, I wanted to get the presents they gave out for good scores. English was new to me, I would ask friends to pronounce the words in Korean, I think that's why pronunciation is still bad. I studied really hard, so that time there did give me time to learn proper study habits.

One of the first things they taught us was how to sit down in the classroom. I remember practicing how to sit down in a chair the way they taught us.

Hanawon gave us 20,000 won a month. There was a small market there. It was really good that I could eat ice cream there, I ate potato chips for the first time, but I thought they had cheated me because there was so much air in the bag.

Looking back, the program didn't seem useful, at times it even seemed useless. We had no freedom, no choices, we were just told what to do and we were still being investigated and interviewed to make sure we weren't spies.

I was still waiting for my freedom. I remember saying to myself: "I want to be free, free, free." Some of the others at Hanawon were also getting frustrated. We were tired of learning about South Korea in a classroom when we were in South Korea. It was like going to a class learning how to cook food, but never getting to eat. I can understand there should be an adjustment period, but it didn't seem to be practical. We were ready to dig in, to experience the "freedom country," to start our lives. For three months, I was learning about a country that was right outside my door.

Finally, we had a chance to go out on a tour of Seoul. We learned to use an ATM, bus card. I wish I could have tried some higher level things, such as opening a bank account. For the first time, I saw some of the things I had seen in South Korean dramas: The Han River, the 63 Building.

At Thailand, I had been thinking I would finally be free, but it had been more than half a year. "I want to be free, free, free, when can I be free?" We were all so frustrated together, some could barely sleep because they were so bored and agitated. The first thing I had learned was the national anthem. I felt South Korean. I almost cried, I really felt South Korean, I was at last feeling welcomed by the country. But the Hanawon process made me feel drained.

It seemed that the Hanawon process was draining us of the incredible energy we had when we first met South Koreans at the embassy in Thailand. We could not experience the outside world when we were in North Korea, but now in South Korea, we still couldn't experience it. Some people began to resent and even hate South Korea for putting them through the NIS and Hanawon process. We had no expectations about North Korea or China, but we had expected better treatment in South Korea, more respect for us as individuals.

Some of the South Koreans there were aware of our frustration, they kept saying Hanawon was a good program, but I think they could not see the context. The contents of the program were not the only thing. It was the questions, the investigation, the lack of freedom, the inability to experience South Korean society. The lectures might have been fine, but not to a person forced to listen for months.

There are some things that should have been different and I have heard they have made some changes. For example, when I was there, it was all South Koreans helping at Hanawon. I'm not saying they must all be North Koreans, but some could be useful. And not just the success stories, it is better to show the reality so it won't feel like we are being brainwashed.

Another thing I hope they have changed: They went overboard in trying to scare us about how competitive South Korea would be. I started to feel like a loser in South Korea even before I was released. Hanawon was warning us that South Korean students studied so hard, that I wouldn't be able to compete with them. They were telling us about North Korean refugees having trouble, committing crimes. True or not, it should have been North Korean refugees sharing those stories, within the context of their struggles, guilt about their families left behind, or their other particular situations we could identify with.

Perhaps they were trying to lower our expectations, but for many, it was demoralizing. They made South Koreans look like such giants. Some of us had been struggling so hard to get to freedom, then made to wait. Wait in China, wait in Mongolia or somewhere in southeast Asia, wait at NIS, wait at Hanawon. At every point, things were discouraging.

I heard a song by a South Korean lady: "I have a dream." She was saying that there are obstacles but you can overcome them. I was crying as I heard the song, I decided that I would do my best, so they can tell my story in the future as a successful case for North Korean refugees.

After I got out of Hanawon, my depression continued. I couldn't figure out why I was living, I had trouble remembering why I had escaped, and I considered suicide more than once. It was cold for me. It wasn't as cold as the North Korean government, Mongolian soldiers or Chinese police, but it was still a tough time. I was free, but I didn't know what to do with that freedom.

I looked back to North Korea: "What if I just go back to my old life? If someone chooses something for me, would that be better?" That made me think about freedom deeply.

After I got out of Hanawon, the discrimination and prejudice hit me hard. Even when I bought things, I felt humble, scared. South Koreans would ask, suspiciously: "Where are you from?" They would ask if I was Chinese or Korean Chinese. I started to feel more isolated. I wonder if refugees don't go through the Hanawon experience where they get beaten down if they would be better prepared for South Korean discrimination. When I first arrived at the NIS, I felt I could fly. But months of waiting, feeling so frustrated, getting beaten down, I lost confidence and energy, so it seemed that anything in South Korea could defeat me.

Things began to turn around, I found some nice people to mentor me, especially TNKR, so I gained confidence in myself. I am now a university student, happier than I have ever been and looking forward to taking advantage of the freedom I have now. The Hanawon process needs to be destroyed, officials need to be willing to talk with North Korean refugees and not be defensive. If it is still part of the security process, then they should admit that, maybe extend the security process, but when it is time to focus on adjustment, then focus on that so North Korean refugees can truly get prepared.

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 the refugee from Korean to English.



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