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Defector's story

Institute helps former education professionals in North Korea becomes agents for change

Kim Ji Seung  |  2017-07-12 17:27

It remains no secret that there are now 30,000 North Korean defectors residing in South Korea, and that some are finding it difficult to adjust to South Korean society. However, many are hoping that their efforts, driven by a sense of responsibility as a 'preview of unification,' will help set the stage for a future unified Korean peninsula.

To better understand the successes and difficulties experienced by defectors in the process of settlement, Unification Media Group is publishing a series of accounts by defectors, covering their experiences in employment, establishing businesses, and studying, as well as documenting stories where success has remained out of reach.

Ms. Lee Sung Min (pseudonym) is a 50-year-old North Korean woman who defected to South Korea in 2008. She currently works at the Incheon Student Education Institute as a North Korea teacher - a position created by the Korea Education Development Institute for the training of defectors who were former education professionals in the North. They are introduced to South Koreas education system, and the program aims to transform them from receivers of support to agents for change. Those who complete this re-education process go on to mentor other North Korean refugee students, and sometimes deliver special lectures on reunification at various schools and organizations. 
Believing that computer skills are an essential part of South Korean life, Ms. Lee teaches basic IT classes for adolescent defectors. Although some students struggle to work with computer programs in English, she says that her students diligently undertake the coursework with great interest. The vast majority of students in North Korea are unaccustomed to using computers. 

Before working as a North Korea teacher, Ms. Lee was a refugee counselor at a community health center. She applied for the role after being advised by her peers to challenge herself. While she was concerned about her lack of medical training, she realized that as a North Korean, she would be in a better position to understand and counsel other North Korean refugees, and she ultimately went forth with her application. However, the hiring process was a struggle from the start. Ms. Lee received a call for an interview one week after submitting her application. She prepared general responses to standard interview questions and nervously awaited the day of the interview. In Korea, the first interview can bring a lot of pressure, and Ms. Lee had many doubts in her mind: Would her interviewers negatively compare her with the younger applicants? Was she too old for the position? However, her belief that meaningful employment would be an important milestone for success in her resettlement process motivated her to prepare even harder for the interview. And thankfully, her hard work paid off. She soon received a call asking if she could start work the very next week.  
Ms. Lee worked in the North Korean Refugee Trauma Treatment Program, a program that seeks to counsel and treat defectors suffering from mental health issues. Her job gave her ample opportunity to meet a diverse range of defectors, from those who resettled to South Korea alone to those who came with their families. Ms. Lee does not believe she had to do much to help make a difference. Simply being there to listen was enough to ease their minds, and hearing their stories about North Korea resonated with her.  
Ms. Lee worked with North Korean refugees and their families for one year. While she found her job fulfilling because it served a social good, being paid to do so heightened her resolve. The South Korean government is currently implementing new policies that provide monetary compensation for long-term continuous service to combat job hopping among defectors. As a dedicated hard-worker, Ms. Lee was able to receive such benefits. Her experience is providing inspiration to other defectors in their job searches. 

Unfortunately, many refugees find it hard to land jobs and remain unemployed and dependent on government welfare. Ms. Lee firmly believes that success is more likely when one takes responsibility for their own destiny. She emphasizes that governmental policies for North Korean refugees are actually quite good, but finds the lack of access to crucial information about employment a huge barrier to employment for refugees, and this problem needs addressing. She suggests that refugees who defect to South Korea alone should join community center organizations and religious groups so that they are not isolated. 

It has been about 10 years since Ms. Lee first came to Korea, and she is beginning to feel a sense of uneasiness about her working career as she enters her fifties. Many South Koreans believe that one loses more and more opportunities as one grows older, and North Korean refugees are no exception to the rule. Ms. Lee has considered starting a business after retirement, but as someone who has spent her entire life teaching, her dream is to integrate what she has learned from the Department of Social Welfare to teach students. 

*This article has been brought to you thanks to support from the Korea Press Foundation. 
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