Education Minister Ahn Byong-man last week visited Yeongyung School, which educates North Korean youngsters, a clear sign that the South Korean government and society are waking up to the importance of educating refugees from the North.
The number of young North Korean refugees has increased rapidly in recent years. But they find it difficult to adapt to schooling in the South. According to a 2007 survey, three out of 10 North Koreans attending high school dropped out.
Contrary to the popular perception, educating North Korean refugees is not merely a humanitarian task. Helping most young North Korean refugees lead a worthwhile life in the South, needless to say, is important, but we should not ignore the strategic objective of educating North Koreans so that they can grow into a future elite for the North.
Intellectual dissidents constituted a very important force in the course of democratizing Eastern Europe. The people of Czechoslovakia and Poland often ignored the propaganda of the official media and accepted the moral authority of the views of writers, journalists and academics who were critical of their regimes. People like the dramatist Vaclav Havel, later to become Czech president, not only encouraged reform and democratization but also greatly contributed to overcoming the difficulties of the transitional period.
But no such elite has emerged in North Korea. It cannot be formed in the North itself due to the almost unprecedented levels of state control. And when escape was all but impossible, it could not be fostered overseas either. But the rapid growth of the North Korean refugee community now provides conditions that are favorable for the emergence of a new elite. There must be talented young people among the 17,000 North Korean refugees. Given a proper education, they can become engineers, academics, lawyers and corporate executives.
It is very important to help young North Korean refugees through university. Sadly, many North Korean students fail to finish their study and fall behind their South Korean counterparts in spite of their capabilities and efforts. They received little support at school in North Korea, which had no proper classrooms and materials, and after their escape to China they could not go to school in fear of arrest and subsequent deportation before finally coming to the South.
This raises the need for special measures so that they can catch up with South Korean students. A year-long preliminary college course before they advance to freshman course would be of a great help. Their poor English is also an obstacle, so language programs for North Korean students will be necessary.
Scholarships should also be offered for North Korean students so that they can attend graduate courses. Though master's degrees and PhDs are now regarded as necessary for top positions, North Korean refugees find it difficult to gain support to study in graduate schools.
Such measures, small in scale though they may be, will produce significant long-term effects and constitute an investment in the future of the Korean Peninsula. Most North Korean refugees now somehow maintain relationships with relatives and friends in the North. Their success in the South will be known in the North as well.
When the North Korean system begins to change, they will play the role of educators, spreading knowledge about today's world. If they are not available when the country is united, the elite managing the North may well be either corrupt former North Korean cadres or South Koreans who are ignorant of the reality in the North.
For the future of the Korean Peninsula, few projects are more important than educating North Korean refugees. By Andrei Lankov, a professor of history at Kookmin University