David Kendall came to Korea from the United States almost 20 years ago. Like a lot of expats, he’s done various work teaching English, editing for the government and writing freelance. But until last summer, he had never knowingly met someone from North Korea.
That changed when he volunteered for the Global English Camp sponsored by Pscore, an NGO whose mission, in part, is the education of people who escaped from the North.
Kendall recalls sitting at dinner one night during the camp with a group of foreign volunteers and one North Korean. They were talking about what it must have been like to flee North Korea, when the North Korean said she had been happy in her homeland at school.
“I got the feeling that we always assume that their life is completely horrible and terrible, but yet their family and friends are there,” Kendallsaid. “Amidst all the problems with famine and stuff there are times when I’m sure they had tremendous joy with their family and friends who they respect and love.”
Kendall, who volunteered at last year’s camp, said he was impressed by how various the North Koreans’ personalities were.
“Some of them accept living in the South and becoming part of here,”Kendall said. “And some of them are very passionate about doing stuff for the North, increasing awareness about the problems there.”
The camp revolves around a mock election. A group of North Korean students, South Koreans and foreigners divide up into four political parties, each of which creates a platform and fields a candidate for president. A different group simulates the media and covers the election, while the remaining participants serve on a committee that oversees the election process.
There are also cultural presentations about the songs, games and dances of various countries. Last year’s camp was Pscore’s first.
Kendall said the election schedule was packed with campaign planning, speeches and media coverage.
“But what I noticed was the Koreans like that,” he said. “It increases their bonding. They’re under so much pressure, they have to work together and get this task done.”
Pscore began in 2006, when the organization’s founder, Kim Young-il, graduated from university. Kim left North Korea in 1996 to escape famine in Hamhung, an industrial city and one of the hardest hit by starvation. Kim’s uncle and some cousins all starved before he left.
“At that time, I don’t know human rights,” Kim said in a May 31 interview at the Pscore office. “I don’t know democracy. I’m just hungry.”
He made his way to China, and about five years later, came to South Korea.
As a university student here, he met weekly with friends to talk about North Korean human rights. The group, composed of North Koreans, South Koreans and foreigners, found that most young South Koreans felt the economic burdens of reunification outweighed the benefits. Undeterred, Kim began Pscore with a three part mission to educate people who came from the North, to sponsor seminars and other forums to discuss reunification and to come up with reunification strategies. The organization gets support from the U.S. State Department and also has operations in Washington D.C. Pscore stands for Koreans or People for Successful Corean Reunification. Korea was spelled with a “c” until the 20th century.
Today, some 50 foreign volunteers work alongside 450 South Koreans educating the 250 or so North Korean students Pscore serves. About 18,000 North Korean refugees have come South since the 1950-53 Korean War.
North Korean students struggle academically after arriving in the South, according to the Pscore website, especially in English. The tutoring program gives them an educational boost.
Tutors meet one-on-one with their students twice a week for two hours at a time, according to the website.
Markus Bell, a 28-year-old native of New Zealand and an anthropology student at Seoul National University, generally meets his student for dinner, he said.
“We talk about anything really,” he said, “about our week, our lives.”
His student likes to practice greetings and simple sayings in English.
Pscore asks tutors not to pry into the lives of their students before they came South. Bell said he lets his student bring it up if she chooses, and then asks questions.
“I often get a feeling of how difficult life is there,” he said.
For Bell, it’s most important to view North Koreans without assumptions about their suffering in the North. Doing so sets them apart, he said, making it difficult for them to assimilate into daily life.
“I think it’s really important, before everything else, to view them as a person,” he said.
“I have had some friends who want to get to know these people just because they are from North Korea,” he said. “It’s kind of like putting them on a stage.”