Page last updated at 16:16 GMT, Thursday, 9 July 2009 17:16 UK

North Koreans learn Southern ways

By John Sudworth
BBC News, Seoul

Hanawon resettlement centre, Seoul, July 09
Hanawon offer a new route to feeling at home in South Korea

North Korean refugees who make it to South Korea have often travelled a long, hard road.

The land border that, for almost six decades, has split this peninsula in half, is one of the most impermeable in the world, carpeted with landmines and across which hundreds of thousands of soldiers still eyeball each other.

So defectors from the North must cross into China where they risk capture and forced repatriation.

The lucky ones arrive here in South Korea after months, or years, of hardship and trauma, only to face another hurdle: how to adjust to what must seem like an alien landscape, with its bewildering, free-wheeling free market, and its strong emphasis on individual responsibility.

Compared to the old North Korean certainties of a command economy and family networks, capitalism can be very lonely.

Minding the gap

On 8 July, South Korea celebrated the 10th anniversary of a project meant to ease some of that burden.

In 1999 the first of several special reception centres known as "Hanawon" was opened.

Seo Jae-pyung, July 09
The Hanawon experience is useful, not only for job training, but for the psychological adjustment
Seo Jae-pyung

Since then, it has been providing medical treatment, psychological counselling and practical support to help almost 16,000 refugees from the North.

Seo Jae-pyung, 38, defected in 2001. "After 60 years, our two countries really are very different," he said.

"So the Hanawon experience is useful, not only for job training, but for the psychological adjustment. It helps you relate to South Koreans and allows you to communicate with them."

The Hanawon centre has three separate rooms for worship; Buddhist, Catholic and Protestant.

The decision whether or not to take part, and in which service, will be for many their first genuine experience of freedom of religion.

The "trainees" as they are called are also shown how to use technology of which most have little experience - computers, washing machines and ATMs.

Guilt and sensitivity

They sleep in shared dormitories, four or five to a room, and eat together in the canteen.

Blue toy trucks, Hanawan centre, Seoul July 09
Children are not likely to have seen toys like these north of the border

Some admit to a strong sense of guilt every mealtime as their thoughts turn to the hardships facing their husbands, wives or children left back home.

The high security at the fenced compound hints at the political sensitivity of the mission to induct thousands of North Korean citizens into a different way of thinking.

All defectors are debriefed by the South Korean security services before admission, to ensure that they are not North Korean secret agents.

So this is a rare occasion, with the doors thrown open to celebrate the tenth anniversary.

Nonetheless, many of the trainees choose to hide their faces in front of the television cameras.

North Korea is known to use guilt by association to jail the relatives of those who have escaped.

Even with the three-month Hanawon training programme, North Korean refugees find their new life far from easy.

Kim Cheol-woong was a music student when he defected from North Korea.

Buddhist chapel, hanawon recpetion centre, Seoul, July 09
Freedom to choose a faith is a new experience

He now works as a musician in the South and was invited back to the Hanawon to perform at the anniversary ceremony.

But afterwards, he spoke candidly about his experience.

"I thought South Korea would be the beginning of happiness," he said.

"But I have to tell you, it was the beginning of pain. Defectors here face poverty, and even worse, social discrimination."

Defectors may have left behind a place with a broken economy and widespread hunger - one where the average North Korean is now several centimetres shorter than the average Southerner - but South Korea is rarely the paradise that some might hope for.

The Hanawon system is simply a start and a way of softening the blow for people who have already suffered enough.

Print Sponsor

Burma frees North Korean refugees
01 Jan 09 |  Asia-Pacific
Escaping North Korea
01 Apr 09 |  This World
The plight of North Korea's refugees
05 Sep 02 |  Asia-Pacific
China returns N Korea refugees
09 Nov 04 |  Asia-Pacific
S Korea accuses refugee of spying
27 Aug 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Refugees flood S Korea mission
06 Oct 03 |  Asia-Pacific

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific