Moon Sung-il, a 14-year-old North Korean, brought tears to the eyes of a group of South Korean students when he recounted his two-and-a-half-year flight that took him through China, Myanmar and a refugee camp in Bangkok.
But he stunned them when he said that none of this was as daunting as a South Korean classroom.
“I could hardly understand anything the teacher said,” he said. “My classmates, who were all a year or two younger than I was, taunted me as a ‘poor soup-eater from the North.’ I fought them with my fists.”
More than 17,000 North Koreans, one-tenth of them teenagers, have fled to the South since famine hit their homeland in the mid-1990s. The average journey to the South takes 35 months, mostly through China and Southeast Asia. Not all who start make it; some have been caught and returned to the North, where they often end up in labor camps.
When they are placed in South Korean schools, these Northerners start nearly from scratch. In the North, they had spent as much time learning about the family of their leader, Kim Jong-il, as they did the rest of Korean history. Few learned English, a requirement in South Korean schools. And when in South Korea, dropout rates among defectors are five times the South Korean average, according to the Education Ministry.