Help or hinder? The role of alternative education for young North Korean refugees’ integration into South Korean society
In the Korean peninsula, two Koreas have existed for more than 60 years after the Korean War (1950-53). North Koreans have escaped from their hometowns in order to overcome hunger and poverty since the mid-1990s. Although the numbers have dropped somewhat since Kim Jong-un became the leader of the North, people still cross the border, seeking a better life. The number of North Korean refugees residing in South Korea exceeded 30,000 as of 2016. This study examines the role of alternative education for young North Korean refugees‟ integration into South Korean society, by exploring their experiences of alternative school in South Korea. Alternative schools for young North Korean refugees are a type of educational institution aiming to offer holistic support for the young refugees‟ successful adjustment to South Korean society. Although the number of those who cross the border and the type of migration has changed over time, children and young people are still considered to be the most vulnerable group who need special care. Young refugees have often endured extreme hardship and traumatic migration journeys before arriving in South Korea. They often arrive alone, without parents and in poor health, both physically and emotionally, and also face a variety of barriers to their integration into a new society. To help and support them better, therefore, this study aims to fill key gaps in knowledge about effective approaches to education for North Korean refugee students, focusing on the challenges and successes that young North Korean refugees experience in alternative school settings. This study adopted a participatory approach based on the view of young people as social actors with their own voices. 12 young people from North Korea aged 17-27 participated in this study. All were current or recent students of three alternative schools in the city of Seoul, established to support young North Korean refugees. Their views were gathered using a visual method, Photovoice (Wang and Burris, 1997), and also one-to-one interviews. A thematic analysis approach was used to analyse the collected data. The key findings of the study showed that the young North Korean refugees in these three alternative education settings experienced a holistic caring approach far beyond the general support offered in mainstream Korean schools. This study identified for the first time, four aspects to this holistic support: education, future career planning, accommodation, and physical and psychological well-being. The young people viewed their experiences as a process of preparation for becoming integrated into South Korean society as independent citizens. They saw alternative schools as helpful for them in overcoming the difficulties that they had faced previously, as well as those they were facing in the present. However, this study also revealed that although they formed close relationships with each other and had a great sense of belonging to their schools, they were also often frustrated by a lack of opportunities to mingle with South Korean peers and „be ordinary‟. This frustration and wish to „be ordinary‟ emerged as a strong theme in the study. Their frustration was balanced however by the high value they placed on the strong bonds developed in alternative education, noting how helpful these were in alleviating the effects of trauma. The study further uncovered, again for the first time, the many strategies the young people developed to overcome adversities and to adjust successfully to South Korean society. On the basis of the young people‟s experiences and views of alternative schools, this study raises important new questions about the role of South Korean alternative schools overall in the integration of young North Korean refugees into society, and for education for refugee children and young people more generally.