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North Korean refugees speak out: 'My Hanawon experience'

Casey Lartigue Jr.
Casey Lartigue Jr.
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 forum marking its 20th anniversary, TNKR began asking North Korean refugees about their Hanawon experiences. ― ED.

Female, name and arrival year withheld by request

My Hanawon experience was terrible, one of the worst things to happen to me in my life.

My family was in a good position in North Korea; we had relatives in China who helped me escape. One of my relatives there paid for me to get a Chinese ID. I was living and working with Chinese people and having a fine life. I didn't like having a fake life, however, worried about being revealed as being from North Korea.

My ID was fine for traveling within China, working and going to school or the hospital. I wasn't confident that my ID would be valid if I tried to get through Chinese immigration or if I returned from a trip. It may not seem important to people who were born in countries where they easily receive an ID, but I wanted to get identification so I could travel legally without concerns.

I decided to apply for asylum in South Korea. The Thai prison was the beginning of my trouble. Gangs were there, dominating and isolating newcomers. It seemed that the Thai officials encouraged it so they didn't have to abuse people directly but they could still keep control.

At some point, I started to get targeted when they realized I was from a nice family. We were all thrown together. It wasn't really possible to get away from the bullies. It continued on when we got to South Korea, then during Hanawon it got worse. We were close to freedom, but still so tightly controlled.

We were all kept together as a group, so that meant new rivalries and battles had started, and the previous ones continued. I stopped participating in Hanawon activities and only did the minimum required. I skipped the religious services even though they offered good food. I just stayed in my room, reading every book that was available.

It was a terrible time in my life, a terrible way to get introduced to South Korea. I don't regret escaping, but if I had known what I would go through, I would have trained as a fighter to be prepared for the chaos of Thai jail and Hanawon.

After I was released from Hanawon, I avoided everything to do with North Korea or North Korean refugees. I joined TNKR because I needed English, but other than this, I have no connection to North Korea-related organizations, and I don't have any North Korean refugee friends in South Korea. I still contact family in North Korea but I must be careful because I have been reported as drowning.

I am doing business and traveling a lot. Those are the two things that I love and I need to sharpen my English for both. I am doing business with people all over the world. I feel so free being able to travel.

I can travel without worrying about having a fake ID or anyone reporting me as being illegal. I am grateful to South Korea, but my warning is that Hanawon and the transition experience punches North Korean refugees in the face when they first arrive. It seems we need a transition process to get prepared for the Hanawon transition process.

Jong-Kyom, male, escaped in 2012, arrived in 2013

It feels like 100 years ago that I was at Hanawon. I mainly remember eating and sleeping. I wasn't focused on anything. I was just ready to get out. I kept thinking, "When will I be able to get out?"

I was so bored, they were teaching about history and Korea. Even when they offered incentives for good behavior and diligence, I wasn't interested. I just wanted to be released.

The main thing I remember is religion. I had heard about it but had never experienced it. In North Korea, I was forced to believe things, so it was interesting to meet people who chose different religions by choice. Three religions would visit Hanawon to try to teach us things. I don't remember their lessons. I do remember the Buddhists brought a lot of nice food, especially my favorite kind of fruit, and nice gifts.

The Protestants had so many beautiful ladies visiting. The sermons were so boring, but I could look at the beautiful ladies. I was in the all-male Hanawon, so of course it was so boring with us being together so often. We couldn't wait to see those beautiful ladies every Sunday.

I would avoid the Catholic religious services or visit them last; they just sang together. The other men in Hanawon and I developed a pattern: Let's go to the Protestants first to see the beautiful ladies, second, let's eat with the Buddhists. If we had time, we could relax by singing with the Catholics.

It is fun to recall that now. There are just a few things that I remember about the actual things we learned for adjustment. It seems that the process wasn't well organized. I learned how to open a bank account when I was in Hanawon, but after I got out, I had to re-learn it.

There were other things that I had been taught that I had to learn once I was free. After I had been out for one year, I had the feeling that if North Korean refugees could live outside of Hanawon for a month, experience many things and then return to Hanawon, that we would pay much closer attention.

It seemed that what we were being taught was in theory and that there would be people on the outside ready to help us if we had trouble. One month in South Korean society would be the best teacher, better than three months of preparation for people looking at the gates blocking them from freedom.

It took me some time to adjust. One problem is that I had a strong North Korean accent. Even if I never said I was from North Korea, some people could sense it if we talked for long. For a minute or two, I could fake a South Korean accent. I remember when I was making a presentation during one of my university classes. It seemed that as I was presenting that I had transformed from a South Korean to a North Korean man.

For the first minute, I was fine, but then I got nervous during the presentation, so I guess I forgot to use the South Korean accent. I kept wondering how I could handle this issue, but finally the day came that I decided to forget about it, just be myself and use my own accent.

If someone had a problem with it, then I didn't want to associate with them if they would judge me based on where I was from. I didn't do anything wrong, I was born in North Korea, and now I am in South Korea.


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 the winner of the Global Award from Challenge Korea 2017. TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee translated the remarks of refugees from Korean to English.




Casey Lartigue Jr.
Casey Lartigue Jr.
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 forum marking its 20th anniversary, TNKR began asking North Korean refugees about their Hanawon experiences. ― ED.

Female, name and arrival year withheld by request

My Hanawon experience was terrible, one of the worst things to happen to me in my life.

My family was in a good position in North Korea; we had relatives in China who helped me escape. One of my relatives there paid for me to get a Chinese ID. I was living and working with Chinese people and having a fine life. I didn't like having a fake life, however, worried about being revealed as being from North Korea.

My ID was fine for traveling within China, working and going to school or the hospital. I wasn't confident that my ID would be valid if I tried to get through Chinese immigration or if I returned from a trip. It may not seem important to people who were born in countries where they easily receive an ID, but I wanted to get identification so I could travel legally without concerns.

I decided to apply for asylum in South Korea. The Thai prison was the beginning of my trouble. Gangs were there, dominating and isolating newcomers. It seemed that the Thai officials encouraged it so they didn't have to abuse people directly but they could still keep control.

At some point, I started to get targeted when they realized I was from a nice family. We were all thrown together. It wasn't really possible to get away from the bullies. It continued on when we got to South Korea, then during Hanawon it got worse. We were close to freedom, but still so tightly controlled.

We were all kept together as a group, so that meant new rivalries and battles had started, and the previous ones continued. I stopped participating in Hanawon activities and only did the minimum required. I skipped the religious services even though they offered good food. I just stayed in my room, reading every book that was available.

It was a terrible time in my life, a terrible way to get introduced to South Korea. I don't regret escaping, but if I had known what I would go through, I would have trained as a fighter to be prepared for the chaos of Thai jail and Hanawon.

After I was released from Hanawon, I avoided everything to do with North Korea or North Korean refugees. I joined TNKR because I needed English, but other than this, I have no connection to North Korea-related organizations, and I don't have any North Korean refugee friends in South Korea. I still contact family in North Korea but I must be careful because I have been reported as drowning.

I am doing business and traveling a lot. Those are the two things that I love and I need to sharpen my English for both. I am doing business with people all over the world. I feel so free being able to travel.

I can travel without worrying about having a fake ID or anyone reporting me as being illegal. I am grateful to South Korea, but my warning is that Hanawon and the transition experience punches North Korean refugees in the face when they first arrive. It seems we need a transition process to get prepared for the Hanawon transition process.

Jong-Kyom, male, escaped in 2012, arrived in 2013

It feels like 100 years ago that I was at Hanawon. I mainly remember eating and sleeping. I wasn't focused on anything. I was just ready to get out. I kept thinking, "When will I be able to get out?"

I was so bored, they were teaching about history and Korea. Even when they offered incentives for good behavior and diligence, I wasn't interested. I just wanted to be released.

The main thing I remember is religion. I had heard about it but had never experienced it. In North Korea, I was forced to believe things, so it was interesting to meet people who chose different religions by choice. Three religions would visit Hanawon to try to teach us things. I don't remember their lessons. I do remember the Buddhists brought a lot of nice food, especially my favorite kind of fruit, and nice gifts.

The Protestants had so many beautiful ladies visiting. The sermons were so boring, but I could look at the beautiful ladies. I was in the all-male Hanawon, so of course it was so boring with us being together so often. We couldn't wait to see those beautiful ladies every Sunday.

I would avoid the Catholic religious services or visit them last; they just sang together. The other men in Hanawon and I developed a pattern: Let's go to the Protestants first to see the beautiful ladies, second, let's eat with the Buddhists. If we had time, we could relax by singing with the Catholics.

It is fun to recall that now. There are just a few things that I remember about the actual things we learned for adjustment. It seems that the process wasn't well organized. I learned how to open a bank account when I was in Hanawon, but after I got out, I had to re-learn it.

There were other things that I had been taught that I had to learn once I was free. After I had been out for one year, I had the feeling that if North Korean refugees could live outside of Hanawon for a month, experience many things and then return to Hanawon, that we would pay much closer attention.

It seemed that what we were being taught was in theory and that there would be people on the outside ready to help us if we had trouble. One month in South Korean society would be the best teacher, better than three months of preparation for people looking at the gates blocking them from freedom.

It took me some time to adjust. One problem is that I had a strong North Korean accent. Even if I never said I was from North Korea, some people could sense it if we talked for long. For a minute or two, I could fake a South Korean accent. I remember when I was making a presentation during one of my university classes. It seemed that as I was presenting that I had transformed from a South Korean to a North Korean man.

For the first minute, I was fine, but then I got nervous during the presentation, so I guess I forgot to use the South Korean accent. I kept wondering how I could handle this issue, but finally the day came that I decided to forget about it, just be myself and use my own accent.

If someone had a problem with it, then I didn't want to associate with them if they would judge me based on where I was from. I didn't do anything wrong, I was born in North Korea, and now I am in South Korea.


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 the winner of the Global Award from Challenge Korea 2017. TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee translated the remarks of refugees from Korean to English.





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