USA Today published a story on the ROK’s transition program for DPRK defectors, Hanawon (하나원).  There is not much new information in the story, but I wanted to address some of the criticisms the program receives.

Here is the most salient part of the article:

North Koreans who’ve gone through the program say it is helpful but not enough to prepare one for a Western-oriented society after a life in a Stalinist dictatorship cut off from the outside world.

Gwang Il Jung, who attended the program six years ago and runs an advocacy group, Free NK Gulag, says the courses have good intentions but gloss over too many details.

“They will tell you the basics,” he says. “But what can you really learn in three months? How do you teach someone to use an ATM or ride the metro in a classroom setting? The classes need to be more hands-on.”

He says the requirement that North Koreans remain on the school grounds for three months is unhelpful.

“They just got here in pursuit of freedom. And they’re locked in again. It’s like prison for them. All they think about is getting out. Let them live. They’ll make their share of mistakes, but many are eager and able to learn,” Jung says.

The two Koreas share a common heritage and language, but much has changed since the two countries were divided in 1948 after the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to temporarily occupy the country as a trusteeship following the Allied victory in World War II.

The students must complete 130 hours of language courses to get a better grasp of the Southern dialect that has been infiltrated by English and other foreign vocabulary, such as the words “Internet” and “computer,” “chicken” and “phone.”

“They may find a job as a waitress, but if they can’t take orders or understand a command like ‘Go get that key from the cabinet,’ it’s just a matter of time before they’re fired,” Youn says.

Personal finance courses, ranging from basic money management skills to the concept of private property ownership, are also mandatory, as many North Koreans are ill-equipped to handle the sudden exposure to welfare and settlement payments the South Korean government provides.

Stories of defectors falling victim to financial scams or bouts of compulsive shopping are common.

Students take lessons on using computers, child-rearing skills and even hairdressing.

First of all, there is no program that is going to suitably address the individual needs of all the defectors that enter the ROK. Individual capacities, experiences, and needs are simply to heterogeneous for a single government program to address.  This diversity of needs, however, presents a market opportunity for non-profits and education entrepreneurs.   Indeed I can think of  a few organizations that offer “continuing education” to former North Koreans as they adjust to life in their new homes.   So Hanawon should not be criticized for failing to meet all needs of all defectors, it should be seen as simply the first step.

Hanawon also draws criticism in the article for keeping North Korean defectors isolated on campus for three months.  This criticism stems from the fact that Hanawon serves more than one mission.  The first mission is to facilitate the transition of North Korean defectors to their new lives in the south.  The second mission is to facilitate the gathering of information on the DPRK and to protect South Korea (and the North Korean defector community) from infiltration by North Korean agents.  There are now 20,000+ North Korean defectors in the South and some +% of them are active agents.  Given the potentially high and visible cost of failing to catch a North Korean agent, South Korean policymakers have a bias toward preventing type 1 errors (allowing DPRK agents to enter the country).  They try to reduce this cost by extending the amount of time defectors spend under scrutiny while confined at Hanawon.  However, this produces a type 2 error: the unnecessary “holding” of innocent DPRK defectors who just want to get on with their lives.  These particular individuals (the vast majority) have every right to feel “mistreated” by this system, but the only politically feasible way to minimize this cost is to improve the ability of the South Korean security services to detect North Korean agents–something few people are able to do anything about.

It is also worth pointing out that there are quite a few North Koreans that don’t go through Hanawon when they come to the South.  I wonder why that is?

Previous posts on Hanawon here.  Previous posts on North Korean defectors here.

You can read the full USA Today story here.


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