- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 8, 2005

SEOUL — In South Korea’s hyper-modern society, there are not many young people who think themselves the dregs of the 21st century.

Those who do are a lost tribe, and on two floors of an anonymous building in a suburb of the capital, Seoul, they undergo “re-education.”

The pupils at these sinister-sounding classes have reached Seoul after fleeing famine and repression in North Korea and the brainwashing that regime is notorious for.

Their upbringing at home, dominated by the eccentric version of Marxism-Leninism espoused by North Korea’s founder, the now-deceased Kim il-Sung, and his son, Kim Jong-il, leaves them ill-equipped to deal with the modern world.

Their second attempt at education, in the South Korean state system, is sometimes even more disastrous.

“In North Korea, you basically didn’t have to work hard,” said Kim Yoen-hwa, 21, who is studying at the school with her younger brother. “Here, it’s different. Whatever effort you put into things decides the result you get.”

Cho Myung-sook, the school’s director, is more blunt. “Many people who make it to South Korea are very proud they have survived all they have been through — labor camps, famine, living underground in China,” she said. “But many then realize what they can’t do and come to believe they are the dregs of the earth.”

South Korea has a successful, but intensely pressured, education system. Ruthlessly competitive, it has little time for laggards, who are often bullied by both teachers and children.

The result is a wealthy society, where 80 percent of people have broadband Internet.

This makes the border with North Korea, less than an hour’s drive away, a shocking fault line. In the North, selling potatoes, as Miss Kim’s mother did, or smuggling in televisions from China is the height of entrepreneurship.

Mrs. Cho, backed by a Christian refugee-support group, founded the school after realizing how difficult it was for defectors to survive in a world where the language was the same, but the rest of life impossibly alien.

Back in Seoul, she discovered that students had a 90 percent university dropout rate. Most children were afraid of enrolling in schools at all.

In the North, the skills taught are basic. “One student spent five years learning how to knit a sweater,” Mrs. Cho said. “Here, you buy sweaters.”

In Jayoutuh School, Mrs. Cho and her team of teachers start again from scratch.

There are day classes for children and evening classes for working adults — 130 students in all. Of the 7,000 North Korean refugees, one-fifth are under 20 when they arrive, and four-fifths under 30.

The oldest student is 37; the youngest students are 16.

All are taught basics, such as math, Korean and English, and retaught history. Miss Kim is still studying part-time. She escaped North Korea after all her neighbors were found dead of starvation.

She says that unlike her brother, she has never regretted coming to South Korea.

She has one advantage: when young, she trained for elite song-and-dance squads and now has a place in a dance troupe, which she hopes to make her career.

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