How North Korean defectors are building a new life in South Korea

The North Korean defectors are taking a professional Korean cooking course to earn an accredited chef’s license at the vocational training center set up at the Hanawon Compound in Anseong, Gyeonggi Province. (Ji Da-gyum/The Korea Herald)

ANSEONG, Gyeonggi Province – The Hanawon Resettlement Center is where North Korean defectors prepare to start new lives and fend for themselves in South Korea before integrating into an unknown world in which they wanted to live.

A total of 33,815 North Korean defectors arrived in South Korea in 2021. Among them, women, children and teenagers are required to stay for three months in Hanawon, which directly translates to “home of the unit”, located in a remote village in Anseong, Gyeonggi Province.

The men are sent to another Hanawon Center in Hwacheon County, Gangwon Province, after being investigated by the National Intelligence Service.

Hanawon, officially the Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees, is operated by South Korea’s Unification Ministry and offers basic education programs and vocational training courses to help defectors adapt and resettle in South Korea.

With high walls and barbed wire fences, the relocation center is in the highest security category in the country, but was opened to the media on Friday for the first time since April 2016 to mark its 23rd anniversary.

The campus includes a vocational training center, a special school, a mental health center, a general hospital, cafeterias and housing.

North Korean defectors can take vocational courses in sewing and clothing alteration at the Hanawon Vocational Training Center.  (Ji Da-gyum/The Korea Herald)

North Korean defectors can take vocational courses in sewing and clothing alteration at the Hanawon Vocational Training Center. (Ji Da-gyum/The Korea Herald)

From nail art to barista training
In Hanawon, North Korean defectors undergo a 400-hour education program on a wide range of subjects, according to the Unification Ministry. The main goals are to improve their understanding of South Korean society and its language as well as women’s rights and gender equality and better embrace and adapt to capitalism and digital transformation.

North Korean escapees – most of whom have been exposed to traumatic events in North Korea and en route to South Korea – are also learning to take care of their mental health.

The largest part of the educational program, a total of 162 hours, is devoted to career guidance, vocational training and job search, which are essential for defectors to stand on their feet given the different systems. education and industrial structures in North Korea.

To this end, a four-story Vocational Training Center was built in June 2020 within the Hanawon compound to directly offer a wide range of courses focusing on vocational and technical skills development.

North Korean defectors can take vocational courses in Korean, Chinese and Japanese cuisines, hairdressing, nail art, makeup, skin care, tourism management and hotel maintenance. They can also learn to become bakers and baristas.

Hanawon also offers courses in industrial sewing, garment alterations and repairs, and professional laundry as well as basic electronics technology and electronics manufacturing.

During the media tour, an official responsible for running vocational training programs at Hanawon in Anseong – who requested anonymity – said many North Korean defectors start their careers as factory workers.

“We have opened professional training courses on the subjects that trainees (defectors) prefer the most,” the official said.

Hanawon was also designated as a national education institution for caregivers late last year, the official said. The authorization allows Hanawon to offer professional courses in nursing, care and social welfare.

Additionally, North Korean escapees can take a computer-based test at the center to obtain a national certificate of technical qualification such as a chef’s license.

The screen shows eight classrooms and other facilities associated with the vocational training center.  (Ji Da-gyum/The Korea Herald)

The screen shows eight classrooms and other facilities associated with the vocational training center. (Ji Da-gyum/The Korea Herald)

Further efforts to improve job quality
The wage gap between South Koreans and North Korean defectors widened from 596,000 won ($458) in 2019 to 457,000 won in 2021, according to data provided by the Unification Ministry.

The average salary of defectors has steadily increased since 2011. The average monthly salary paid to defectors increased from 2,047,000 won in 2019 to 2,277,000 in 2021. The average salary last year almost doubled by compared to 2011, when defectors earned an average of 1,213,000 won per month.

But Unification Ministry officials, speaking at a briefing to reporters in Hanawon, said there had been no significant improvement in job quality.

The overall proportion of North Korean defectors in low-quality jobs and their turnover rate are higher than the average for the South Korean population, but the Unification Ministry has been looking at ways to improve the quality of the job. employment of North Korean defectors, including improving the system in coordination with relevant ministries.

“But there has been a trend for more defectors to get jobs that require skills,” an official said. “In addition, the number of people wanting to start their own business has increased rapidly. We continued to support the creation of their own businesses.

Hanawon also offers 372-hour courses in subjects such as language, driving, computers and parenting which defectors can voluntarily attend. But basic computer courses and training for a driver’s license are the most preferred by defectors, according to the official.

North Korean defectors under the age of 19 are educated at the special school in Hanadul before being transferred to a mainstream school in South Korea.  (Ji Da-gyum/The Korea Herald)

North Korean defectors under the age of 19 are educated at the special school in Hanadul before being transferred to a mainstream school in South Korea. (Ji Da-gyum/The Korea Herald)

Mental health care at the special school
North Korean defectors under the age of 19 are educated at the special school in Hanadul before being transferred to a mainstream school in South Korea. A school official said around 2,600 defector students had attended the school since the school opened in September 2009.

Hanadul School aims to help its students “establish an identity as a citizen of the Republic of Korea (South Korea), regain confidence and self-esteem by developing emotional stability, improve academic skills basic and supplementing learning and improving the understanding of schools and society”. of the Republic of Korea”.

Kindergarten and elementary students attend classes at Samjuk Elementary School in Anseong and participate in extracurricular activities at Hanadul Special School. Teachers seconded from the Ministry of Education teach middle and high school students at Hanadul School.

North Korean defectors can undergo individual therapy at the mental health center.  (Ji Da-gyum/The Korea Herald)

North Korean defectors can undergo individual therapy at the mental health center. (Ji Da-gyum/The Korea Herald)

Within the Hanawon compound, the Hana General Hospital – which encompasses dentistry, family medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics, oriental medicine and pediatrics – is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with nursing staff.

For example, about 30 to 40 percent of defectors need denture treatment which is usually expensive for them, a hospital official said. Some 90% of defectors go to the dental clinic.

A number of thank you letters written by defectors were pinned to the hospital wall.

North Korean defectors can also receive professional mental health services such as individual, group and play therapy at the mental health center which opened in November 2018. A psychiatrist and four counselors are currently working at the center.

Unification Minister Kwon Young-se, in a speech at a ceremony marking Hanawon’s birthday, admitted that the government should do more to address the challenges and sufferings of defectors.

The minister also stressed that South Korean society should establish an enabling environment for defectors to play a central social role.

“More than 30,000 North Korean defectors have often been referred to as precursors to unification,” Kwon said. “No one can predict when unification will take place. But anyone can do it now to prepare for the unification to come while cherishing and nurturing the harbingers of unification.

The occasion marked the first public visit to Hanawon by a unification minister since 2017, when then-unification minister Cho Myung-kyun attended the event celebrating the 17th anniversary of the center. South Korea’s unification minister had refrained from openly visiting Hanawon facilities after the two Koreas began establishing an atmosphere of reconciliation in 2018.

(dagyumji@heraldcorp.com)

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