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Lessons Learned from the Hangyoreh Winter School
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2015-04-08 21:01:00
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In January 2015 NKHR conducted our 26th Hangyoreh School, an alternative winter school for the North Korean youth. Thirty North Korean students participated and were divided into small groups based on their academic level. The program focused on improving students’ skills in Korean, English and math—the three most difficult subjects for North Korean youth. The students were also taught other subjects such as history, public speaking, art, sports, and civic education.  Below, a NKHR intern shares the lessons she learned at Hangyoreh School.

Lessons Learned from the Hangyoreh Winter School
By Jisoo Kim, student of Calvin College, U.S.
NKHR intern

The Hangyoreh School, which lasted from January 5th to January 21st, is designed to assist North Korean youth grow in confidence and attain basic academic skills. On the first day of the Hangyoreh School, Mr. Bum-jin Park, a Board Member of NKHR, acknowledged the difficulties that these students face in adjusting to a new environment. They struggle especially at school. Many find difficult to integrate into South Korean society and its academic environment. Yet, Mr. Park encouraged the students not to focus on these obstacles, but to make the most of every opportunity—especially the opportunity for education. There are many among the Hangyoreh School graduates who have done just that.

For the first time, I began to grasp what these teenagers must have gone through when they arrived in South Korea, a new country. At an early age, they escaped from North Korea, then journeyed through China and Laos, Cambodia, or other foreign lands to finally reach South Korea, the land of their dreams. But is the reality they face in South Korea optimistic and welcoming? At a time in their lives when they are more sensitive to peer-pressure, and their development of self-esteem is most critical, these teenagers bear more burdens because they are bullied and struggle academically. I related to these young students, as I personally recalled my teenage years in Europe. During that time, I was an alien and a foreigner, trying hard to adjust to a new language and culture, making efforts to make friends and strive academically. Doing all these tasks simultaneously was never easy. I cried many times, upset by how people treated me differently based on my imperfect English accent, and my appearance as an Asian person. It hurt me to think that these students must have similar experiences in South Korea. There were also students without family here—I could not even begin to imagine how lonely they must feel at times.

I visited Hangyoreh School again two weeks later to observe the classes and students’ presentations, and to interview teachers and students on their progress. When I asked two students what had benefited them most about the School, both agreed that it was the customized education that facilitated their learning. Teachers taught them subjects in a way that was “easy to understand.” They mentioned that the education curriculum in North Korea did not include English courses and mathematics was limited to four years. By contrast, the South Korean primary school curriculum includes intensive English courses and six years of mathematics. Along with such customized education, they found slideshow presentations useful because they learned to communicate their ideas in a manner that could be understood by others. They also found the teachers’ continuous encouragement and advice beneficial. “Teachers here encourage me continuously,” one student said. “They tell me to be confident, to not be let down, and to love myself despite what people think of me.”
I also interviewed Ms. Hye-In Kim, a volunteer teacher who taught Mathematics and English at the Hangyoreh School. A student from Daegu University, Ms. Kim previously had a strong prejudice against North Korea and North Korean youth, but her teaching experience at Hangyoreh proved her prejudice wrong. When asked what the most rewarding moment was after teaching for two weeks, she answered that it was when the students showed a clear progress on what they were taught. “There are many students with potential,” she said. “Whether they decide to continue their studies at a university or start working, I hope they strive at it using their talents to achieve their goals.”

Visiting Hangyoreh School was a meaningful occasion to appreciate North Korean youth and their struggle adapting to a new country. These teenagers, like teens in South Korea and elsewhere, deserve an education and a sense of belonging. I am thankful that organizations like NKHR strive every day to provide these teenagers with such opportunities. Despite many despairing moments in those teenage years, what motivated me to thrive as an individual were my parents’ encouragements and continual support. Although it is unrealistic to expect that North Korean students’ self-esteem would be completely restored and that they could master all the essential skills necessary for their resettlement in South Korea in only three short weeks, I came out of the school feeling confident that the process had begun for those students, assisted by the direction and encouragement from the teachers.