Young NK defector beats 'English stress'
By Kang Hyun-kyung
Hong Sung-il, a North Korean defector, found himself alienated in his first English class on the first day of high school in Seoul in 2000. Hong was 17 then.
“I had never studied English before,” said Hong, a 29-year-old Yonsei University graduate with a bachelor’s in psychology, in an interview with The Korea Times Wednesday. He is applying for master’s degree.
He instantly realized that he couldn’t overcome the English divide with his classmates in a short time period. His classmates had studied hard to have a strong command of English through private tutoring since they were young.
“I spoke Chinese well since I had lived in China for years. So I honed my Chinese language skills to enter university, while putting off English for the time being,” Hong said.
He and his mother escaped from the reclusive nation in 1997 when Hong was 14. They had spent two-and-a-half years in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang before they embarked on another dangerous journey for freedom.
After making a long, journey via Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, the mother and son finally arrived in Seoul in August 2000.
“In my third year of high school, I heard that there was a private academy providing English programs for North Korean-born students who are preparing for the college entrance exam. The total tuition was 920,000 won.”
He only had 200,000 won.
“I went to the academy in southern Seoul and told the people there that was the only money I had. I asked if they could let me in, which they did. I studied English for three months there from March. The three months were all the time I studied English before entering university.”
A 2010 survey of 110 North Korean-born college students found that English is the No. 1 stress factor and this made it difficult to adjust to campus life. Six out of 10 young North Korean defectors feel that their English level falls far short of that of their South Korean-born classmates.
Three out of 10 North Korean defectors drop out of college after finding that they can’t match their classmates’ English level.
Hong also saw many young defectors stressed out because of English, although the foreign language is not the only reason which makes their life here tough.
Hong’s life took a fresh turn after he joined the British Council’s “English for the Future” program tailored to North Korean defectors. North Korean defectors here are entitled to attend the course for free. Since its launch last May, nearly 50 people are now attending the course.
The psychology major has taken the course for three to 15 hours per week, depending on his schedule. He also interned with the political division of the British Embassy in Seoul for three months from January.
He now describes his English level as intermediate. He is one of the winners of a 2012 Chevening Scholarship awarded by the British government.
He plans to study social and cultural psychology at graduate school and is awaiting the results after applying to three universities in Britain.
After returning to South Korea, he said he would like to do research on ways to cushion the culture shock that people in North Korea would feel in the event of unification.
“I have spent half of my life here in South Korea. Sometimes I ask myself who I am. I know that even though I wear Nike or Adidas shoes, people in the mainstream of this society would not accept me as one of them.”
He wants to help North Koreans adjust to the capitalist South with a set of policy measures to ease the culture shock he felt 12 years ago.