What is Disneyland? Out of North Korea, into the real world

David McNeill visits the school in Seoul where defectors are introduced to the world beyond the repressive state's borders
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The Independent Online

They like pop songs, eat too much junk food and wear the unofficial uniform of a billion other young people: jeans, T-shirts and sneakers. But until recently, these Seoul students had never heard rap music, eaten a burger or watched David Beckham dribble a ball.

Born in the Rip Van Winkle state of North Korea, where Western clothes and culture are restricted or banned, they are now struggling to adapt to life in the noisy, capitalist South says Cho Myung-sook, the vice-president of one of the few schools in the South for Northern defectors.

"They often have a hard time here," she says of the 60 students – average age 24 – who attend classes every day in the Yeomyung school. "They have to be taught to begin again from scratch." A Christian, Ms Cho believes her school is part of God's mission to reunify the two Koreas – and even as their near contemporary, Kim Jong-Un, 26, is anointed as the North's next leader, the pupils at Yeomyung seem to their teacher to represent the chance to bring that transformation closer. "Everybody may be thinking about reunification," she says, "but not many are doing anything about it."

In a classroom at Yeomyung, the North Koreans stare nonplussed at her pop-culture questions. David Beckham and Michael Jackson draw a blank. One student wants to go to Disneyland after hearing about it from a friend. "Many people don't understand that they are so pure," says Ms Cho. "They have so much sympathy for people who are weaker or in trouble. They often end up in jobs helping others."

Defectors have been trickling into Seoul in rising numbers since famine and economic collapse struck its Northern neighbour in the 1990s, killing an estimated 600,000 - 2 million people. About 20,000 now live in the capital; another 300,000 may be living illegally in China, according to the South Korean media.

Their plight is one of the lesser-known modern tragedies, says Rev Tim Peters, the founder of the Seoul-based humanitarian group Helping Hands Korea. "They're traumatised from escaping the North and living in China." Many have been refugees for months or years. They have no rights. Some have been caught and sent back to prison only to escape again. "About 70 percent of the women are forced into prostitution, says Ms Cho.

Even if they get to Seoul via Mongolia, Vietnam or another third country, life is tough. The best educated find that their qualifications are useless. They have never used ATMs or mobile phones or driven a car. Some are physically stunted and even mildly retarded from the poor Northern diet. Most are shorter, darker and more poorly educated than their southern neighbours, who, consciously or not, look down on them, says Ms Cho. "South Korean society hasn't prepared for the arrival of these people."

The new defectors are interrogated by the Southern authorities to weed out spies, sent to a camp south of Seoul called Hanawon (House of Unity) for counselling and reorientation, then released into society with 20m won (£11,000) in resettlement money. From there, they are essentially left to sink or swim, says Ms Cho. "They have no idea how to live here. But the alternatives are worse."

Mr Peters says that North Korean agents in the border areas around China co-operate with Chinese security forces to hunt for defectors. Some disguise themselves as refugees or work undercover as employers. If caught and repatriated, North Koreans face prison or worse. Amnesty International says some have been tortured and executed.

The South, while legally offering North Koreans the right to citizenship and repatriation, lives in fear that the trickle of 1,000 to 3,000 refugees a year will one day become a flood. Critics say the government doesn't do enough to help the new arrivals acclimatise, which leaves schools like Yeomyung (Dawning) to fill the gap. "When they go to school, the curriculum is for South Koreans, which they can't understand," says Ms Cho. So they feel isolated and lonely sitting in the classroom."

The school helps the students bridge the gap, offering education and life skills. "They don't understand capitalism, so they don't realise, for example, that you've got to repay credit card bills," she says. "Some get into debt and run away."

In March, the South Korean government awarded graduates from Yeomyung the same status as their counterparts from state schools, meaning that they can now apply directly for college admission. In the years ahead, the South will need many more similar schools, warns Ms Cho. "They've been socialised in the North so trained to depend on the government for everything. All their lives they've had a schedule or a solution for everything, so they never have to take the initiative, and they simply can't compete with local people."

Top defectors

* The most senior North Korean to defect, 87-year-old Hwang Jang-yop, is the former secretary of the North Korean Workers Party. He is believed to have been a mentor to Kim Jong-il, but fled in 1997. In April, South Korea accused the North of sending assassins to kill him.

* In 1953, the US Air Force offered a reward of $100,000 for delivery of the new MiG-15 jet fighter. Later that year, 21-year-old Senior Lieutenant No Kum-Sok of the North Korean Air Force landed delivered the plane to Seoul. He was given a new identity and US citizenship.

* Claiming to be a former escort for Kim Jong-il's 'Pleasure Squad', Mi-Hyang says she was recruited at 15 to serve the despot beside 2,000 other women. She is believed to have fled to Seoul, but refuses to release details of her escape.