North Korean Defector Students and English Language Learning

All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

Part of my project on English education in South Korea, included visits to two sites that work with North Korean Defector Youth and Children (NKD). One site was an after-school program outside of Seoul. The other site was as an alternative high school and middle school in Seoul. Both visits were organized by the U.S. Embassy Public Affairs Section and offered a different perspective on students and English language education in Korea.

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This entry is a short summary of both visits. There are very few photographs in order to respect the students’ identities and privacy. The subject is very complicated and would require extensive explanation and writing. Therefore, I will attempt to clarify certain terms and definitions to provide context for the reader.

As a brief explanation, “NKD youth are between the ages of six and twenty four who were born in North Korea but are now living in South Korea”. They are also “youth with at least one parent who is a NKD, who was born in China or a third country.” (Bridging Communities for the Future p.51)

Those children who are born in China or a third country, generally Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, in many cases will speak Korean and the language of the birth country. When they start schooling in South Korea, English would become a third language. For those children who are considered “youth”, they are usually born in North Korea. Although they speak Korean, they do so with a different accent, which is usually recognizable by South Koreans and in many cases, becomes a concern of prejudice for these students. This impacts whether or not they will reveal their identity making it harder for others to reach them. NKDs receive assistance from the Ministry of Unification, the Ministry of Education and the North Korean Refugees Foundation. This assistance includes housing, education, tuition and health and social services.

Many of the older NKD students have similar educational and emotional issues as the Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFE) and the refugee students in the United States. Newcomer programs that work with these students in the States offer a range of support services in addition to English as a second language. Besides having to learn a new language and culture, they all have to deal with academic issues that stem from their previous school experiences.

NKD students arrive in Korean schools where academics and competition are high. They have to learn the nuances between the two Korean languages, English, adjust to a new social environment while catching up academically and socially to their peers. Many of these students have low literacy skills due to their previous education in North Korea. Consequently, they are not able to read at “grade level”, do not have the content and skills knowledge of their peers and since so many of them are older, they face the pressure of age and work . They may even feel uncomfortable amongst their school peers. For these students, the way to education is through alternative schools. A kind of “newcomer school” which focuses on how to help them navigate new lives and challenges in South Korea so they can ultimately become contributing members of this country.

The remarkable and sad difference between these students and our immigrant students in the US is that unlike our students, who may look or sound different from their peers, these students blend into the streets of Seoul, Daegu or any other Korean city. They look the same as their peers yet their lives are vastly different.

The English language programs in the schools are mostly taught by Korean English teachers but are also supported by volunteer native teachers of English who come to Korea to work in public and private schools. These volunteers come from the United States, Canada, Great Britain and other English speaking countries. English for these students, as for all students in Korea is one of the keys to employment and security.

The visit to the after school program in Daegu, a city four hours away from Seoul, was a chance to observe elementary school children learn English and social skills. Like all children, they were inquisitive, happy to be out of school and excited to do a craft activity about Thanksgiving. The volunteer teacher was Canadian. She came to the program once a week and truly enjoyed working with the students. The younger student was a great artist and a chatterbox. The older student was very serious and diligent. We made a craft together. Then had dinner with the teacher and staff. It was a lovely afternoon. These students reminded me of the Korean students I teach – there was no difference between North and South.

The program is part of an initiative led by the Center for North Korean Defectors- Hana Center. I was impressed by the quality of care and organization and inspired by their work. Jane Kim, a Senior Manager for the program, was generous with her time and knowledge and gave me a short course on NKDs and the process of resettlement. The information and literature she shared with me made it easier for me to understand this very complicated subject.




The second visit was to an alternative high school. Yeomyung School sits across the iconic Seoul Tower, on top of a steep hill in a building that looks nothing like a school. The staff at the school is warm, caring, dedicated and understanding. They shared information generously about their mission and their students. They face an incredible difficult job providing counseling, guidance, love, discipline and academics to 107 students ranging from 14 to 24 years old. Many of the students are here alone and many with their families. For those students who live far from Seoul or who are no family, the school provides housing, a kind of “rooming house”.

Part of the challenge is similar to working with adolescents in any school. They can be angry, defiant and rebellious. However, these students have a much heavier emotional load that makes the job of these educators that much more challenging.

The class I observed was inspirational. It was a group of nine students who will be graduating this year. Many of them will be going to university. They are “top” students, engaging, smart, funny, curious and chatty. The teacher was from England and said that she loved this class and would be sad when it ends. I can understand why.  She knew her students and what their interests were. The amount of spoken English in this lesson was the most I have heard in any English class in the past three months.The students worked in pairs answering a series of questions she had on the board. It was a revealing lesson.

  • What is the most beautiful place you have ever visited? Jeju Island
  • Where is the coldest place you have ever been to? North Korea
  • Where is the hottest place you have ever been to? China and Laos
  • What was the best day of your life? Coming to South Korea. Was so beautiful this day.

One of the students offered an explanation as to why he should learn English, “ I have to learn English to get good company”. Then he asked me my age and said, “In U.S. not polite to ask age but we are in Korea”. Then he said, “When in Rome…” to which I told him how old I am. He was extremely curious about my personal life and life in the States. I was impressed with how quickly he learned some expressions and how he already knew some cultural differences.

At the end of the lesson, they shared their dreams as they move on to become members of Korean society.

“ I have a dream I should learn English to be a chemistry teacher”.

“I have a dream to be a CEO of a new Artificial Intelligence company”.

“I dream want to be a hotelier.”

“ I want to be policeman”.

“I dream I want to be business”.

“I dream I want to be a veterinary”.

It was a memorable afternoon that showed me the power of hopes and aspirations and of how education can open doors – for real.
















4 thoughts on “North Korean Defector Students and English Language Learning

  1. Yes, there is no difference between children in North and South. We will see them all together after unification!
    I know many cases of NKD cannot adapt here, it’s so sad.
    Thanks for your sincere perspective!


  2. Thank you Monica for sharing with us about this important topic and for broadening our awareness. The insightful connections you make between SIFE students and NKD youth are enlightening.


  3. Monica, I’m curious about the cost of college education there. Is a college education a financial hardship as it can be here? Are there loans or assistance programs for students in need?


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