The difficulties of North Koreans studying in Korean universities
The difficulties of North Koreans studying in Korean universities
  • 서연지 기자
  • 승인 2007.06.01 00:00
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According to the February 20, 2007 issue of The Chosun Ilbo, the number of saeteomins (North Korean escapees residing in South Korea [henceforth Korea]) reached its peak by marking 10,000 and the number is expected to increase to 20,000 within five years. In order to embrace the North Korean escapees, the Korean government has established many policies, one of which focuses on the needs of young adults. A Special Application for the young saeteomins offers supportive scholarships in order to alleviate financial burden and allow them to study in Korean universities.

Many universities including Korea, Yonsei, Sogang and Ewha have admitted saeteomins into their universities. From the statistical data provided by Hanahwon, which finances half of the tuition fees for the North Koreans, the number of North Korean students studying in Korean universities reached 440 in 2006 and is expected to be around 600 in 2007, including approximately 50 graduate students.

Despite the large number of saeteomins studying in universities, the attention to cater to the needs of these people does not seem to have grown. “Although many of us get admitted into universities, a significant number of people drop out in the middle or request temporary absence from school,” said a North Korean student, Kim Jung-chul (Yonsei University, 3).

Difficulties in Academic Studies

The most severe problem faced by the North Korean students is in their academic studies, “Terminologies used in majoring subjects are so difficult for me to understand. Words used in the South are different from North Korea but also, as it is in English and is abbreviated, it makes it worse,” said Yoo Hee-jin (Yonsei University, 2), who uses an alias. For North Koreans, figuring out abbreviated English words is a major challenge. “South Koreans may easily come up with the idea that DB stands for Database, but for me, it is impossible,” Yoo added.

Moreover, pronunciations become a hindrance in understanding the lecture. “Sometimes I misunderstand what the professor says, although he had said oh, I understand it as ah and it takes time to figure out what the actual word was,” said Yoo.

Participating in team works and group projects is also stressful for North Koreans. Many of group projects involve using the computer in many ways. Researching on the Internet and using Word Processors or Powerpoint Presentation programs is another problem. “I had to produce a report with my partner, but as I was unfamiliar with handling computers, my partner did it all for me. I felt so guilty that I immediately registered for a two-month computer class,” said Yoo. “I hate team projects because I may be allocated with a task that I am not able to perform well,” said Kim. Jung Hyun-sook (Master’s Program in North Korean Studies, 3), who uses an alias, said “I had to sit down for two hours to learn how to use a presentation program, and the result I’ve produced was not as good compared to that of my peers.” For Yoo, she complained that researching on the Internet was very difficult for her. First, she didn’t know which website to go on. Second, she couldn’t comprehend the plethora of information due to many foreign and different words used in the South. Yoo said “It takes forever to look up the words from the information that I have researched, and I easily get tired if I look up words for two hours or so.”

Difficulties in Other Areas

Joining a club once you are accepted to a university is seen as a typical step to enjoying university life in Korea. However, for North Korean students it can be burdensome. “I had joined a Taekwondo club in my freshman year. But the club was so strict with hierarchical structure where upperclassmen shouted at me what to do. For me, who was already fed up with North Korea’s organizational life and constraint, the club’s atmosphere was not comfortable,” said Kim.

Also, many North Korean students are reluctant to join clubs as they worry about people having bias views towards them. “I didn’t like it when people’s attitude changed once I told them that I am from North Korea,” said Yoo. However, the major problem is that, for North Korean students, their hands are already full with academic obligations and joining clubs only make their lives more difficult.

Difficulties Derived from Cultural or Ideological Differences

Another hardship stems from cultural differences between North and South Korea. With such different backgrounds, North Korean students say that there is a limit to what you can actually talk about and understand when communicating with South Koreans. Beginning with popular games, or celebrities, or even a drama that has been on air long time ago, the dispositions are quite different. “It is like you are in a foreign country. It seems like you are getting along quite well, but there are times when you can’t deeply agree or understand,” said Kim. He also added that compared to the North, where collectivism is prevalent, in the South he feels a lot of individualism. “I was shocked when I was denied from a classmate to borrow his notes,” said Kim.

Overall, the invisible wall between North and South Korean students culminates when North Korean students feel inferiority. They feel depressed when they compare themselves with South Koreans. “I lost confidence since I came to university. Everyone is so smart and studying and competing with them makes me feel small and useless. This is the most difficult thing to overcome for me,” said Yoo. “People are used to feeling like competing and catching up only when they know that there is a possibility of standing in an equal status. However, for many North Korean students, South Korean students are way up in their abilities that they feel reluctant to compete,” said Jung.

Nevertheless, many of the North Koreans agree that it is an undisputable fact that despite having difficulties, it is crucial to allow or encourage more saeteomins to study in Korean universities. “I believe there aren’t many competent North Korean, who can lead Korea once we get reunited. And because of this, more North Koreans should be given the chance to study in Korean universities and be ready for the reunified Korea,” said Jung. In order to encourage North Koreans to study, Kim suggests the school should come up with a thorough system that can help North Koreans in universities. “Providing a mentor might be a solution. Mentors can help and guide the North Korean student throughout their university life, from understanding majoring subjects to South Korea’s social cultures,” said Kim. “In order to help the saeteomin students, a thorough tutoring system can be revised. For example, setting up a program for the South Korean tutors in advance to their placement to help saeteomin students, to understand and help them better,” said Professor Kim Seok-hyang (North Korean Studies).

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