Walking through the busy streets of metropolitan Seoul, Lee (an alias) seems no different than the hundreds of Koreans around her.
Stopping by a cafe, she purchases a cup of coffee and hurries out to the subway station. Following the everyday actions of millions of fellow urbanites, there is nothing unusual about her.
But there is something that sets her apart. Lee is a North Korean refugee who defected in 2005. Lee is also a student at People for Successful Corean Reunification, or Pscore.
Established in 2006, Pscore is a non-governmental organization consisting entirely of volunteers, with bases in Washington, D.C. and Seoul.
While it provides news coverage of North Korea and helping defectors become South Korean citizens, a unique aspect of this organization is that it offers educational programs for refugees. Tutors, a mix of foreigners and English-speaking Koreans, meet one-on-one on a weekly basis with individuals to teach subjects ranging from English to mathematics.
Although Pscore has only run its tutoring program for 20 months, at any given time there are around 60 to 70 refugee students registered.
According to the Ministry of Unification, in 2000, only 312 North Korean refugees escaped to South Korea. In 2008, the number of escapees rose to 2,809. In the past few years, the population of North Korean refugees in South Korea has grown so rapidly that the government is only offering $10,000 in resettlement money per refugee, instead of to the previous amount of $28,000.
Also, Hanawon, a government-sponsored training center for North Korean escapees, has reduced its program cycles from three months to two months.
Pscore seeks to fill the gaps in already existent assimilation aid for North Korean defectors.
One Pscore student, Chae, who asked to be anonymous, defected from North Korea in April 2006. After enrolling in college to study medical science, she was surprised that 40 to 50 percent of the lectures were in English. Looking for English lessons, Chae found Pscore through friends who were being tutored already. A year has passed, and she feels that her English lessons will be invaluable to her goal of becoming a nurse in the United States.
Like Chae, 70 percent of Pscore students seek help mostly in English as its usage has increased in South Koreans’ daily lives and the workplace.
“In the 21st century, the acculturation process of South Korea has been profoundly influenced by the West. The culture shock that North Korean emigrants experience when they settle in South Korea is worsened by the constant presence of English, a language that is restricted mostly to the elite in North Korea,” said Choi Hyun-chul, the president of the Korean Society for Journalism and Communication Studies.
As a young organization, there are still problems that the organization must fix.
“Frequently, there are tutors who are not very sincere about their work or do not put in all their effort in teaching refugees.” says Lee, a 35-year-old North Korean college student, citing several English tutors who frequently canceled meetings or didn’t show up. She said that perhaps Pscore should be more selective in choosing its volunteer tutors.
Pscore hopes that South Koreans would be more willing to welcome North Korean refugees with open arms, rather than a cold shoulder.
“On a societal level, the atmosphere in South Korea is not very supportive or encouraging of the refugees. The average citizen doesn’t care much about their issues,” said An Seung-woo, secretary general of Pscore.
Mary Anderson, an American teacher in Seoul who tutors for Pscore, commented likewise.
“Tutoring the students is simply delightful, and without a doubt, they’re some of the hardest working students I’ve ever seen. But, there is shockingly a lot of prejudice. I knew a North Korean woman dating a Canadian man in South Korea who desperately wanted to move to Canada because of how unwelcome she felt in South Korea.”
Pscore is looking forward to conducting research about reunification of the two Koreas and expanding their tutoring program in the future.
“Whenever a refugee gets accepted into college or achieves employment, we feel a sense of distinct accomplishment and pride,” says Pscore.
*This article was written with help from staff reporter, Yoo Jee-ho.