(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
Going into this program, my knowledge on the relationships between North and South Korea were very basic. The course I took last semester definitely helped, but the lectures on Thursday illuminated parts of the issue that the books and readings just couldn’t have. The first lecture was on the relationships and strategies that China, Japan, America, and Russia have had in the past with South and North Korea. The presenter was very organized and the information was well-structured. It was very interesting to learn about the different policies and exact events that have constructed the current political landscape in North East Asia. The presenter also went over the benefits these countries would gain from a unified Korea (big surprise).
We also were able to talk to a North Korean kindergarten teacher refugee who arrived in South Korea 8 years ago, and was currently a graduate student at Yonsei University. The two hour Q&A session went by very fast; our group had a lot of questions that I found very interesting and enlightening. Hearing about NK propaganda and brainwashing from second-hand sources is one thing, but hearing it directly from a refugee was especially impactful. While some stories such as her believing and teaching her students that Kim Jong-Il could fly on top of tree leaves may have seemed amusing at the surface, the actual impact and seriousness of a statement like that is very real. The only thing that took away from the session was that there was a government official with her making it harder to determine whether her answers were being filtered. The final session of the day was with a chipper woman who seemed determined to not let the translator get out a full sentence. This session seemed by far the most propaganda-y, declaring several times that “Unification is a jackpot!” and finding new ways to declare that South Korea was better and more legitimate than the North. Even a cute puppy video during the break time was unable to shake this insincere feeling from the whole presentation.
During our weekly discussion we were able to process a lot of this information. We discussed some of the inconsistencies we had noticed during the lectures, and postulated the different motives that South Korea had behind pushing the process of Unification so strongly, almost to the point of not even discussing with us other alternatives. Overall our time at the Unification center was… interesting to say the least. While at many times the information that was presented conflicted with the things we learned in class, it was interesting to receive the South Korean government’s stance on this very critical issue.
On Friday, we headed to Hanawon, a school for North Korean refugees that provides resettlement education, which is very necessary for many refugees. After attending the 3 month program at Hanawon, the refugees are settled into any city of their choosing and receive assistance from the government with housing and finances to ease their transition into South Korean society. The school was actually very beautiful and had good resources, even a psychiatric center, something that I would have thought not possible budget-wise for such a small-scale school (only around 400 students are at Hanawon at a time). The experience at Hanawon definitely eased any of my worries about the South Korean government forcibly or abrasively trying to assimilate North Koreans into their culture. Our talk with a North Korean refugee reinforced this sentiment: she seemed to be very grateful for her time at Hanawon and even opted to return for Chinese education.