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North Korean refugees speak out: 'My Hanawon experience' (2)

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.

Casey Lartigue Jr.
Casey Lartigue Jr.
Eunseo, female, escaped North Korea in 2012, arrived in South Korea in 2012.

Hanawon was useless for me. I just wanted to get out. It seemed they were letting ideology and politics have too much influence. One ridiculous thing we learned was about putting blocks in toilets to save water. They were more interested in talking about the environment rather than teaching us something practical for everyday survival, such as learning how to pay bills. At that time, I couldn't understand why they were so focused on environmental things when we were thinking about how we would survive after we were released from Hanawon.

They certainly tried to have an organized and professional program. One refugee who had already settled down shared her experience, giving general advice about adjusting to South Korea. It sounds useful, but it wasn't, it just felt like theory because we could not get out to experience things for ourselves. After I got out of Hanawon, I had to learn so many things on my own through real experience, not lectures.?

Mina, female, escaped North Korea in 2011, arrived in South Korea in 2012.

I went to school at Hanawon, because I was too young to be out on my own. I really wanted to go out. The school focused on adjustment of North Korean refugees. At that moment, the most important decision facing me was if should go to an alternative school or a general school. The people at Hanawon warned we could be bullied or have difficulty adjusting in general South Korean public schools. I think they didn't need to try so hard to scare us.?

I'm not sure how much of an impact Hanawon had on me as I began to live in South Korean society. Before I was a university student, I tried to look South Korean, changing the way I look, my accent. But one day in college, others talked about their hometowns, but I couldn't talk about North Korea. Then I wondered why I couldn't talk about it. Those TV shows talk about the crazy things about North Korea, so I didn't want my story mixed up with those. Then I realized, I'm just an ordinary person, I don't need to worry about those things. Just live my life and tell my own story.

The Hanawon process is necessary, it may not be perfect, but for some it could be useful. One change they could make is to teach differently. It would be better just to show TV dramas for months to help refugees catch up with South Korean vocabulary. The lectures were boring, not practical. Most refugees are so eager at that point to enter South Korean society, but they must sit through boring lectures.


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.



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.

Casey Lartigue Jr.
Casey Lartigue Jr.
Eunseo, female, escaped North Korea in 2012, arrived in South Korea in 2012.

Hanawon was useless for me. I just wanted to get out. It seemed they were letting ideology and politics have too much influence. One ridiculous thing we learned was about putting blocks in toilets to save water. They were more interested in talking about the environment rather than teaching us something practical for everyday survival, such as learning how to pay bills. At that time, I couldn't understand why they were so focused on environmental things when we were thinking about how we would survive after we were released from Hanawon.

They certainly tried to have an organized and professional program. One refugee who had already settled down shared her experience, giving general advice about adjusting to South Korea. It sounds useful, but it wasn't, it just felt like theory because we could not get out to experience things for ourselves. After I got out of Hanawon, I had to learn so many things on my own through real experience, not lectures.?

Mina, female, escaped North Korea in 2011, arrived in South Korea in 2012.

I went to school at Hanawon, because I was too young to be out on my own. I really wanted to go out. The school focused on adjustment of North Korean refugees. At that moment, the most important decision facing me was if should go to an alternative school or a general school. The people at Hanawon warned we could be bullied or have difficulty adjusting in general South Korean public schools. I think they didn't need to try so hard to scare us.?

I'm not sure how much of an impact Hanawon had on me as I began to live in South Korean society. Before I was a university student, I tried to look South Korean, changing the way I look, my accent. But one day in college, others talked about their hometowns, but I couldn't talk about North Korea. Then I wondered why I couldn't talk about it. Those TV shows talk about the crazy things about North Korea, so I didn't want my story mixed up with those. Then I realized, I'm just an ordinary person, I don't need to worry about those things. Just live my life and tell my own story.

The Hanawon process is necessary, it may not be perfect, but for some it could be useful. One change they could make is to teach differently. It would be better just to show TV dramas for months to help refugees catch up with South Korean vocabulary. The lectures were boring, not practical. Most refugees are so eager at that point to enter South Korean society, but they must sit through boring lectures.


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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