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North Korean refugees speak out: 'My Hanawon experience' (5)

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, 3 and 4. ― ED.

Myong-Ju, female, escaped North Korea in 2009, arrived in South Korea in 2010

While I was there, I really wanted to get out. "Why should I be here?" But these days, when I look back, that was my most comfortable time in South Korea. Sometimes I miss the time I was at Hanawon, it was boring, but also it was so quiet, I had time to reflect on my life.

The difficult time came after I got out and had to adjust to life in South Korea. I went through depression; I was in a hospital for a while. I really struggled because I didn't have any social connections. Things have gotten better now, but it was a very difficult time in my life.

Hyang-mi, female, escaped from North Korea in 2013, arrived in South Korea in 2015

When I came to South Korea after arriving on the airplane, I wanted to get a South Korean flag. I had been cheated by another North Korean defector when I was in China, he had sold me into the life of sexual trafficking, so I wanted physical proof that I was really in South Korea.

I never think about Hanawon, I haven't thought it since I left. I do remember that there was very good food there and that I learned many things, such as Konglish and the life of South Koreans. I was supposed to memorize about things I had never experienced. I remember memorizing "Paris Baguette," but I had never been to one. After I went to one, it didn't feel like what I had heard. So I'm not surprised I didn't remember anything after I got out, because I was also experiencing many new things they had never taught us.

My adjustment period was difficult after I left Hanawon. I wasn't even sure how to get into or leave the subway, they all seemed to be designed in different ways. Sometimes, I couldn't really be sure I had entered the subway, sometimes it would turn out to be a shopping center on the way to the subway. I got lost so many times trying to find my way home. In North Korea, I rarely left my village. Seoul is so complicated, I had trouble finding things, even when I had the address.

Zayong, male, escaped from North Korea in 2018, arrived in South Korea in 2019

There were good and bad things about my arrival into South Korea. During the NIS investigation, I could study, focus. They were asking many questions, but I was a soldier in North Korea with access to information and I was expected to know more than the general population, so I could describe my surroundings there very easily. And of course I know about my family, so it was no problem.

Some refugees say that Hanawon is boring, but after having a tough life as a soldier and then escaping through China, I was happy to have time to rest, read, think about how I could study and prepare for my life in South Korea. Of course, people can disagree about which parts of the curriculum are necessary. The one thing that bothered me is that some of the lecturers seem to be bragging about how great they were and how much money they have. The people from organizations seemed to take every moment to promote their organizations, I guess to have us become members.
I have been in South Korean society since January, I have no idea what South Korean life is like. All of my time is going through training and education courses for North Korean refugees, to the library, then back home. I have no idea of South Korean life on weekends, I must focus on my future, acquire skills.

Sung-kyung, female, escaped from North Korea in 2005, arrived in South Korea in 2007.

If I had known what would happen to me, I would have waited to escape from North Korea. I was 19 years old when I arrived at Hanawon. I wasn't an adult responsible for anyone else, I wasn't a child, so they didn't really know what to do with me. I was put with the children, I helped to take care of the young students when I was there. Later, I followed another adult to Chonju, because they didn't me any benefits they give to adults. I left Hanawon with no money, nothing. I really hope the system is more helpful for young people like me arriving.

The curriculum at Hanawon was fine, but because I was stuck there, I wasn't really interested in learning. I was alone, not sure of my future, and I was thinking about how I could rescue my family from North Korea. I can't say that I have any good or bad memories of Hanawon, I came here alone without family and I didn't have any choices. I wanted to go out, but I was a bit scared about what would happen to me on my own.

I have settled down well, but it was not a good start and it took me some time to figure things out.


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, 3 and 4. ― ED.

Myong-Ju, female, escaped North Korea in 2009, arrived in South Korea in 2010

While I was there, I really wanted to get out. "Why should I be here?" But these days, when I look back, that was my most comfortable time in South Korea. Sometimes I miss the time I was at Hanawon, it was boring, but also it was so quiet, I had time to reflect on my life.

The difficult time came after I got out and had to adjust to life in South Korea. I went through depression; I was in a hospital for a while. I really struggled because I didn't have any social connections. Things have gotten better now, but it was a very difficult time in my life.

Hyang-mi, female, escaped from North Korea in 2013, arrived in South Korea in 2015

When I came to South Korea after arriving on the airplane, I wanted to get a South Korean flag. I had been cheated by another North Korean defector when I was in China, he had sold me into the life of sexual trafficking, so I wanted physical proof that I was really in South Korea.

I never think about Hanawon, I haven't thought it since I left. I do remember that there was very good food there and that I learned many things, such as Konglish and the life of South Koreans. I was supposed to memorize about things I had never experienced. I remember memorizing "Paris Baguette," but I had never been to one. After I went to one, it didn't feel like what I had heard. So I'm not surprised I didn't remember anything after I got out, because I was also experiencing many new things they had never taught us.

My adjustment period was difficult after I left Hanawon. I wasn't even sure how to get into or leave the subway, they all seemed to be designed in different ways. Sometimes, I couldn't really be sure I had entered the subway, sometimes it would turn out to be a shopping center on the way to the subway. I got lost so many times trying to find my way home. In North Korea, I rarely left my village. Seoul is so complicated, I had trouble finding things, even when I had the address.

Zayong, male, escaped from North Korea in 2018, arrived in South Korea in 2019

There were good and bad things about my arrival into South Korea. During the NIS investigation, I could study, focus. They were asking many questions, but I was a soldier in North Korea with access to information and I was expected to know more than the general population, so I could describe my surroundings there very easily. And of course I know about my family, so it was no problem.

Some refugees say that Hanawon is boring, but after having a tough life as a soldier and then escaping through China, I was happy to have time to rest, read, think about how I could study and prepare for my life in South Korea. Of course, people can disagree about which parts of the curriculum are necessary. The one thing that bothered me is that some of the lecturers seem to be bragging about how great they were and how much money they have. The people from organizations seemed to take every moment to promote their organizations, I guess to have us become members.
I have been in South Korean society since January, I have no idea what South Korean life is like. All of my time is going through training and education courses for North Korean refugees, to the library, then back home. I have no idea of South Korean life on weekends, I must focus on my future, acquire skills.

Sung-kyung, female, escaped from North Korea in 2005, arrived in South Korea in 2007.

If I had known what would happen to me, I would have waited to escape from North Korea. I was 19 years old when I arrived at Hanawon. I wasn't an adult responsible for anyone else, I wasn't a child, so they didn't really know what to do with me. I was put with the children, I helped to take care of the young students when I was there. Later, I followed another adult to Chonju, because they didn't me any benefits they give to adults. I left Hanawon with no money, nothing. I really hope the system is more helpful for young people like me arriving.

The curriculum at Hanawon was fine, but because I was stuck there, I wasn't really interested in learning. I was alone, not sure of my future, and I was thinking about how I could rescue my family from North Korea. I can't say that I have any good or bad memories of Hanawon, I came here alone without family and I didn't have any choices. I wanted to go out, but I was a bit scared about what would happen to me on my own.

I have settled down well, but it was not a good start and it took me some time to figure things out.


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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