We Laughed, Then We Cried – Yehdahm Kweon and Rebecca Kim

Our last few days in Korea have been bittersweet. There have been many goodbyes, hugs, and well wishes. It is hard to believe that two full months have gone by. Looking back, we have come a very long way and made lots of progress. Our last day at KumKang was on Thursday. We had a slideshow of the pictures that were taken over the past two months, and had a small pizza party with the students. It is amazing how close we have gotten with the kids; we were even able to see some students blossom from shy to energetic and excited. There was lots of energy at KumKang School that day. Many of the students do not have much stability or consistency in their day to day lives. Even in the short time that we have been there, we have seen multiple forms of volunteers come in and out of the school. Although a relatively short volunteer program will not solve the entire issue of the reunification of the Korean Peninsula, it is one small step in understanding the situation in depth, and spreading awareness about it. In the case of Kum Kang School, some volunteers place a label on the students as “North Korean Refugee Children” which ultimately sounds like a charity case. However, a big lesson that we all learned during our time here is that these children are just like any other kids. They throw tantrums, play games, and can be better actors than professional athletes.

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And though we’ve said our goodbyes, it certainly doesn’t mean it is the end. What we established in the two months of learning and working with these students is the very first of hopefully many meetings between Duke students and KumKang School. Perhaps the program will develop to have a structure penpal system so that the students and the student-teachers can keep in touch. And maybe the difficulties faced and mistakes made in this first trial will be fixed in joint effort in coming years. We leave with high hopes for the following summer and the incredible experience of learning from the students as much as they learned from us.

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Dialogues. – Won-Ji Lee

The progress with most of the Chinese-speaking students is continuing at a steady pace. However, one of the students was in a bad mood and completely shut down on Monday morning. After multiple attempts to get her to start her work, we left her alone for most of the morning; however, towards the afternoon, she bounced back and whizzed through her reading. I realize that even this late into the program, these kinds of phases can happen and that the best thing to do is just leave her be until she is ready to learn.

With the older 4th and 6th grade students, we continued to review the English alphabet, as many of them still get confused over certain ones. Playing games like Bingo and fly swatter, we are hoping to fill in these holes in their English knowledge in a fun and interactive way. We are also gravitating toward a more artistic direction with the students to give them a physical final product before we leave them at the end of our program. We mentioned that we will be leaving them in less than two weeks, and were greeted by some a variety of responses. Half of the class gave us blank stares and the other half were cracking jokes about it with a laugh. I am personally conflicted about this reaction. It is relieving to see the students who were laughing about it, as it hopefully means that saying goodbye will not be as hard. But it is simultaneously saddening because perhaps it means that we as teachers, did not make enough of an effort to reach out and connect with these students. For the kids who gave us blank stares, although we do not know what was going on in their minds, I am also hoping that saying goodbye to them will not be difficult. Towards the end of the day, we had to confront one of the older students about bullying his classmate. As we were playing a game he suddenly threw a younger classmate on the ground for being in his space. After class, we lectured him on the principles of treating others with respect and how important that will be later on in life. The brashly confident 6th grader was a different person when being lectured. His head was down, would not make eye contact, and was dead silent. Although he did not say a word, we are hoping that our words reached him at least a little bit. Even approaching the final days of the program, we are still faced with both new and old problems.

On Wednesday evening, our group attended Dialogue in the Dark. Though unrelated to our work at the school, this was a surprisingly powerful experience. We were able to catch a glimpse of what it means to be blind. For a 90-minute walking tour, we were accompanied by a blind “roadmaster” through pitch blackness. We navigated through simulations of a forest, a busy road, a food market, rode a “motorboat,” and tasted some soft drinks in the absolute darkness. We tried to guess what our soft drinks were, but were corrected by our roadmaster, who could tell the differences between soft drinks by their smell and the size and shape of the can! When we first entered the tour, many of us were nervous and scared, but by the end, our roadmaster’s hearty laugh and reassuring voice made the darkness into something comforting.

The crew at Dialogue in the Dark

The crew at Dialogue in the Dark

Group photo from Dialogue in the Dark

Group photo from Dialogue in the Dark

Gaining New Insights: Visit to the United States Embassy – Usman Mahmood

When North Korea is mentioned in the United States, there is usually a certain stigma surrounded the subject of this country regardless of the context it is mentioned in. The country is constantly negatively perceived as the “bad guy” due to the closed-off dictatorship headed by Kim Jong Un and its provocative actions concerning nuclear weapons. Thus, the media in the United States and many other countries around the world spend a large amount of time on its discontent with North Korean actions rather than the prospect of unification with South Korea, a people of the same history and culture who have been split for more than 63 years.

 

Some of the group out in front of the American Embassy

Some of the group out in front of the American Embassy

Statue of King Sejong near the embassy. The most respected king of the Joseon dynasty and the creator of Korea's alphabet.

Statue of King Sejong near the embassy. The most respected king of the Joseon dynasty and the creator of Korea’s alphabet.

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Throughout our stay here in Seoul, we have had the privilege of hearing different perspectives on the prospect of unification. At the Institution for Unification Education during the first week of our trip, we were able to gain insight into the steps that South Korea is taking toward reunification, South Korea’s current and past relationship with North Korea since the divide, and the role of international players, specifically India and Pakistan on the reunification process. A few weeks later, we attended another series of lecture that provided a different look on unification such as in-depth analysis of the economic implications of unification. However, up until our trip to the United States Embassy we had not gained a detailed American perspective on unification or the relationship between North and South Korea, which is relevant to our group as students who live in the U.S.. After going through a series of security measures at the embassy located in Gwanghwamun, we were fortunate to have a talk with Daniel Tikvart, an specialist in North Korean relations who prior to working at the embassy served as North Korea Unit Chief in the Office of Korean Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Throughout the talk with Mr. Tikvart, we gained insight into the United States’ role in South Korea, specifically their military agreements and compromises to support South Korea against North Korea in addition to the role America has played in supporting the North Korean refugees who need to be integrated into South Korean society. Another major point of the lecture was the United States’ role in unification as a country that would be integral to the process along with Japan, China, and Russia. Due to the immediate costs that unification would generate, foreign powers such as the United States will need to play some kind of role without excessive interference, as the issue should be resolved under the terms of the two Koreas.

 

Statue of Admiral Yi Sunshin, in Gwanghwamun Square

Statue of Admiral Yi Sunshin, in Gwanghwamun Square

Changing of guard ceremony at Gwanghwamun Palace

Changing of guard ceremony at Gwanghwamun Palace

As a whole, the lecture was captivating as it provided our group with a new perspective, one that is often over-shadowed in the United States by the constant negative press concerning the North Korean government. Despite the occasional American bias, which was anticipated with regards to the North Korean government and a unified Korea under a liberal democracy, the lecture gave an objective explanation on America’s role in the relationship between North and South Korea.

Lunch at a Chinese restaurant after the embassy

Lunch at a Chinese restaurant after the embassy

 

 

The Adventure at Kumgang Begins – Drew Korschun and Jina Yun

We said goodbye to our first few days of freedom that we had in simply exploring our new home for the summer, and we also said goodbye to our fascinating journey to Seoul’s Ministry of Unification and the DMZ. It was our first week at Kumgang School (금강 학교) our purpose for traveling to Seoul in the first place. We would no longer be explorers, but residents. No longer passive learners, but active participants.

The only taste of the school we had gotten was a very brief visit to the school we had made the day before (we’re talking ten minutes), where we got to simply look at the campus, greet the principal, and see a group of smiling kids standing in the large room they had to do activities in.

On the first morning, we took the subway early just for precaution, going from Hongdae Station across the Han River to Shindorim Station, transferring to another line and finally ending up at Gaebong Station. By this time we were already accustomed to the subway, so we didn’t end up making fools of ourselves by falling or swaying due to the speed. Dressed up in business casual style, we rode clustered together, anticipating how our first day plans would turn out.

When we arrived at the school, we met one of the teachers at the school, Ms. Ko (Ko seonsaengnim) for the first forty-minute period of the day in order to get better acquainted with the school’s operation before we met the students and in order to ask some of the pressing questions we had. How were we to address them? Were we to use chondetmal (formal language) or panmal (informal language)? What exactly was she and the other people who run the school exactly expecting of us during this seven-week engagement? Ms. Ko let us know that we could speak to the kids informally and address them by their given names. She also said that first things first, we should help the kids with the homework they brought from their regular South Korean public schools, and after that, focus quite a bit on English, Math, and when possible Korean (especially for the kids who know more Chinese than Korean). We took all of this in, and a handful of the group got ready to work with the kids who stay at the school in the morning.

There were only two students at Kumgang in the morning, though there were usually four who stayed back at the school so that they could catch up in learning Korean so that they could soon join regular Korean public schools. As we were told earlier in the year, most of these North Korean refugees have come to South Korea by route of China, so many of them have spent the majority of their lives in China, speaking Chinese the most fluently and sometimes even feeling nationally Chinese rather than Korean. Since Michelle speaks Chinese fluently and I can get by in conversational Chinese, we both went into the reading room where two Chinese-speaking boys, one eleven years old and the other, fourteen, were sitting expectantly. Jina also accompanied us, and later as did most of the other DESKalators (a self-chosen denomyn for those in Duke Engage South Korea). We mainly worked on Korean passages with the boys, and so we were equally dependent on the Korean-speaking DESKalators for understanding the material and on the Chinese speakers for conveying the information to them so they’d understand. It was not easy material for the students, and it wasn’t easy material to teach either. I hope that we were an encouraging force for them though, able to make them excited about learning new things (or even the same things but with a different language-paradigm). Since these students are now residents of South Korea, and by some strange twist of fate, China can no longer be their country and they must adopt this new one and become familiar with its ways. I’m never against encouraging foreign languages, but it does seem quite a pity that foreign language learning for countless refugees and migrants around the world has to come in the context of being thrown into the unfamiliar and having to unlearn what they’ve already spent their lives learning and making progress in. I hope that these students all learn to love the Korean language for its beauty, complex and simple, as well as the peninsula that language is spoken in, and I will do by best to speak to them in Korean when possible. But of course, it is priceless to see little eyes widen in wonder and joy when they learn that some of their new teachers can converse with them in their heart language.

After working in a very individual-focused manner until around 2:30, the rest of the kids at Kumgang came back from their public schools, and for the rest of the day, it was, to be quite frank, chaotic. The students, I’m sure, were wary of us as outsiders coming in to volunteer for the summer (as many have already experienced South Korean and American students coming in to volunteer before), but they were also very excited to meet us, and we DESKalators were more than excited to meet all of them. In that first period, we did an ice breaker game in the large upstairs room, which was certainly a way for the kids to channel their abundant energy. In the game, everyone made a circle and someone had to say “I love [something],” and if other people in the circle love that something, they had to switch places, and whoever didn’t have a pair of shoes to stand in front of had to go next and say something they love.

I think the energy levels were certainly a surprise for most of us. Some kids would slam the door and say “Merong” (a kind of “nanny nanny boo boo”), run and yell, and on the other hand, some would choose not to participate in activities. There were also a lot of violent tendencies that we noted: hair-pulling, casual pretending to choke each other, and sometimes slapping. We wonder how much of their past trauma in the family realm and in the realm of international migration has affection their lives today – their mood, outlook, levels of trust with certain people, and their need for attention. Kumgang is essentially a boarding school, and while majority of the kids seemingly get to see their parents on the weekend, some of the kids rarely have the opportunity to see their parents (some only get to see them two days out of the year). Learning facts like this is tough, but it also puts things into perspective when it comes to dealing with behavioral issues and giving them the attention that they need and deserve. Throughout the days, we also wondered what exactly was the purpose of our volunteering at the school. Is learning material like English and Math really the big take-away for these kids this summer? It would definitely be great if the students were able to have a portfolio or a project to explore their identities and their dreams, and I’m sure that would be a great thing, created by the students themselves, to leave behind But maybe the attention we give them during the school week will be equally important.

Some things about us as the teachers, though, inevitably threw up some barriers. First and foremost, language greatly affected our interactions with the kids. Only two of us speak Chinese, and most of us speak Korean on a very wide spectrum of ability. But honestly, a lot of the time, speaking feels like bumbling around, especially for me. I’m trying my best to communicate, but sometimes the language ability barrier makes me sound awkward and unconfident – something I will have to improve on through the weeks, and which I am sure will naturally get better by just interacting with the students every day.

Secondly, for many students, people of different races was a huge novelty. For example, when Anna walked into one classroom, one boy asked her if she had eaten too much chocolate, and if that was why her skin looked different. A lot of the students are also very eager to feel my arm hair and ask if my legs look the same (since white people tend to have more body hair…). All of the students are really sweet and are very accepting of us, however, despite some differences. I think that it’s an exciting experience for them, but it’s equally exciting for us teachers to learn from all of the kids, who vary a lot in personality, age, language, interests, and more.

A difficulty we encountered on this first day was that it seemed that none of the kids had any homework that they had brought from their public Korean schools. As well, many of the kids different greatly in level, and we found out that age does not necessarily correspond with grade level. We would have to come up with ways to engage everybody’s interest and learning while also catering to different levels. A balancing act between group learning and one-on-one help would be necessary.

Overall, the second day went much more smoothly than the first. We were starting to remember a majority of the students’ names, and we were much more confident in what we were to expect from the school day. We had prepared concrete lessons and worksheets for the students, and we found that doling out very specific assignments was a great way to keep the students engaged, diligent, and free from rowdiness. However, we also started to learn that balancing the more fun subjects with the harder, not as dynamic ones was important for keeping the students engaged and channeling their energy when it started to show up more.

We also learned that the students are in love with certain K-pop groups (*cough* EXO *cough*) as well as American animation (*cough* Frozen *cough*), so engaging them in their own interests, we found, was crucial. We had a great time teaching some of the English lyrics to “Let it Go” from Frozen, and letting them partake in creative assignments such as one in which they were able to create and draw their very own animal and tell the class about where it lives, what it eats, and why they wanted to create it. However, the week at Kumgang teaching and getting to know these students has definitely shown the flaws of the glitzy world of Hallyu (the Korean pop culture wave) in not being representative with the reality of Korea’s people of diverse backgrounds. While fun to engage in music and culture, it is always a good idea to question what kind of image of Korea it props up and what type of Korean person it promotes (in terms of beauty, wealth, ethnicity, language, and so on). I am beyond excited to keep on moving throughout the weeks here in Seoul, on the streets and in the school. I know that there are great plans ahead of us, even if they are foggy at the moment, and we DESKalators will do our best to carpe the diem and live haru-haru (day by day).

Similar to Tuesday, we only taught in the afternoon on Wednesday. We used the same teaching strategies from the day before and tried to plan a lesson or an activity for each period while separating into two smaller classes. Even though the kids were willing to participate and pay attention on Tuesday, they were oddly in a bad mood on Wednesday. It seemed as though that if one of them was in a bad mood, it brought down the mood of all the other kids in the class. This really heightened their slightly violent behavior and most of them had a harder time focusing and staying motivated to learn. A lot of the kids tried to either leave or sleep instead of participating in class. We were a bit confused and unsure about the source of this mood swing, but we suspect that a lot of this is because they are not allowed to leave the school during most of the day. Furthermore, we made the grand mistake of having the two classes play at different times. When one class was playing, the other class that was having a lesson was chaotic because the kids were complaining that they did not get to play as well. We definitely learned it the hard way that playtime should be at the same time for both classes.

We faced another obstacle later in the day when the principal brought in two new students who cannot speak a word of Korean. We were quite unprepared because we were never told about these new students, but we handled the situation with grace by separating one of the classes into two smaller classes and having one class that focused on learning Korean for these Chinese-speaking students. We quickly got a sense of their skill levels and made worksheets for them on the spot for them to start learning with the other students.
It was pretty clear during the past couple days that communication with the principal was lacking and inefficient. In order to solve this problem, a couple of us went to speak to her about our concerns regarding this issue. Even though we expected some positive responses, we were disappointed by her reaction. It was clear that they had numerous administrative difficulties, confusion about details, lack of knowledge about the kids. But despite this incident, we continued to remain professional and positive towards our relation with them, because in the end, we are here for the kids.

Besides a couple difficulties throughout the day, it was definitely clear that we were all improving in controlling the kids in the class, teaching the classes, and handling unexpected situations. The kids also seemed to be growing fonder of all of us. There was definitely a gap between the kids and us on the first day of teaching, but the kids were now hanging on our arms, playing with our hair, and giving us drawings of us. Even though it was only our third day with the kids, it was amazing how much we were able to reach out to them.

For Thursday, our last teaching day of the week, Professor Kim joined us! It was initially very confusing because we thought that we would only be teaching the Chinese-speaking kids in the morning and the regular class in the afternoon, we found out that all the kids were going to be in the school all day. We split up the morning into two classes where a group of us taught the Chinese-speaking kids Korean and the other kids played together and worked on the computer. For the Chinese-speaking kids, we focused on more one-on-one time for personal attention and help, which we found to be very valuable. The kids not only were more open to learning, but also were able to focus better. In the afternoon, we had regular lessons like we did before. The kids seemed to be a lot better about paying attention, maybe because they were able to release a lot of their energy by playing in the morning. We tried to teach them English by singing “Let It Go” from Frozen. The class was quite successful! The kids really loved it and were mostly willing to participate. Through this class, the kids opened up more even more to us and some were even sad that we were not going to be coming on Friday.

We started our Friday with a North Korean food workshop. We learned how to make potato dumplings (감자 만두) and tofu rice (두부밥). Potato dumplings are famous in 함경도, a region in North Korea while tofu rice is a traditional food, in some ways North Korean version of South Korea’s 떡볶이. We had the chance to learn about the foods, learn how to make them, and even make it ourselves! After our food workshop, we headed to 인사동where we walked around and explored the streets. Next, we went to 남산타워 by taking a cable car to the top of the mountain. We were able to see the locks that people put on the fences and saw beautiful night lights once the sun set. It was a busy and a tiring day, but a valuable experience filled with exciting events where we were able to learn more about the Korean culture.

Welcome to Seoul! – Usman Mahmood and Michelle Dang

After a long series of connecting flights and inconvenient layovers at airports across the globe, our crew finally arrived at Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea. Our team consists of eight students and two faculty directors, Professors Aimee Kwon and Eunyoung Kim. After landing in Seoul, the group, so relieved and excited to get things going, eased through customs, grabbed our luggage, and we were off to our guesthouse in Hongdae, an area of Seoul named after Hongik University. Hongdae is known for its art, music, and entertainment scene, a culture very fitting for us college students! Upon arriving to our guesthouse, our faculty directors kindly gave us a full day of rest before we would head to the Institution for Unification Education for our four-day seminar on the issue of Korean Unification, which serves as the foundation for this particular Duke Engage program. We used the free day to explore the vibrant streets of Hongdae, stopping by parks, live music performances, coffee shops, and restaurants. By the end of the day, we were worn out and ready to rest up for our excursion at the IUE.

The IUE campus was about an hour away from Hongdae via subway and then bus, and situated on the very mountainous outer edge of Seoul adjacent to the Bukhansan Mountain National Park. Following our arrival at the Ministry of Unification, we left for a tour of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) along the border between North and South Korea. The DMZ was created in 1953, at the end of the Korean War as a part of the Korean Armistice Agreement between North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, and the United Nations Command forces. This buffer zone sits along the 38th parallel, dividing Korea in half, and is the most heavily militarized border in the world. Our first stop at the DMZ was the Unification Village, a civil control zone where we were able to gain insight into the products of a farming village, particularly soybean. From there we moved to Dorasan Station, the northernmost railroad station in South Korea. The station is just 700m from the southern boundary line of the DMZ, and 205km to Pyeongyang, the capital city of North Korea. Dorasan station serves as a representation of Korea’s division and also its unification. Once traffic is possible between the two Koreas, both goods and people from countries like China and Russia will be transported and will go through the customs and entry center at Dorasan station. Following our stint at Dorasan station, we were able to walk through the 3rd infiltration tunnel. Designed for a surprise invasion into South Korea by North Korean forces, the underground tunnel, lined in bedrock, was discovered in October 1978. The tunnel is 1.6 km long, 1.95 m high, and 2 m wide, and capable of allowing the passage of 30,000 North Korean soldiers! Our last stop at the DMZ, and the most surreal for me, was the Joint Security Area and Panmunjom village. The JSA lies in the DMZ, and is the only section where North and South Korean soldiers are standing face to face. JSA is now used for diplomatic negotiations between the two Koreas. The emotions flowing through my body while standing on the South Korean side of JSA looking into North Korea were unreal as I was actually standing in a place that I had seen so many times on television in the news. I could almost feel the tension between the two sides as the South Korean soldiers were staring down one North Korean soldier, who would occasionally pull out his binoculars to check out the visitors. On our long bus ride back to the IUE I reflected on this experience at the DMZ, as the separation of a people of the same culture was so captivating and the origin of my interest in the program. Our group became further informed on the history of the division of Korea, and there was no better location for us to learn about this issue than the demilitarized zone.

On our third day at the Ministry of Unification, we continued to participate in a series of lectures pertaining to Korean unification. The first lecture was focused on the current unification policy of the Park Geun-Hye government, presented by Duk-haeng Lee, a senior policy cooperation officer of the Ministry of Unification. After the previous day’s lectures, which gave a background to the issue of unification, this was the first time we engaged with concrete ideas as to how unification could be brought forth. Our lecturer stressed that the government must have two different policies prepared according to the circumstances and timeline of unification. One policy should take into account that sudden changes may occur in the next few years, which would accelerate the unification process. Especially in the past few years, there have been signification changes in leadership within East Asia – Kim Jong Un inherited the position of power after his father Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011, becoming the new leader of North Korea, Park Geun-Hye was elected as the president of South Korea in 2013 and Xi Jinping became the president of China in 2012. Changes in government policy could significantly affect the process of unification, and the South Korean government must be prepared for such circumstances. On the other hand, even if there is no catalyst for unification in the new few years, the government should still have a policy in place that encourages unification in the next 15-20 years. This second policy should stress that unification may be costly, but that any costs incurred should be seen as an investment that brings about benefits that will eventually cover any losses experienced at the beginning. Most importantly, any unification policy should be focused on achieving happiness for all Korean people.

The second lecturer of the day was Professor Sandip Mishra, a visiting professor from the University of Delhi, who offered an alternative point of view by looking at the Korean unification issue from an international perspective. He noted that there were three ‘levels’ of players involved in the unification process. The core players are North Korea and South Korea – there is no doubt that unification must be instigated within Korean peninsula. The second level consists of key players like Russia, China, USA and Japan, nations who have strong political and economical ties with North Korea and South Korea. The third level contains all other countries that may have weaker ties with the two core players, but can also take part in the unification process. This last level of players is often forgotten or dismissed as unnecessary – however, Professor Mishra pointed out that ignoring this ‘third level’ would be to forego the global nature of the Korean unification issue. It is also possible to use indirect connections to augment communication between the key players; for example, Pakistan has close connections with both China and North Korea, and South Korea could reach out to North Korea with Pakistan as an intermediary. In other words, seemingly uninvolved nations could play a role in bridging the gap between the two sides of the Korean peninsula. Professor Mishra also mentioned that the issue of unification has gradually become more prominent in India in the past few years because of the Hallyu wave – as more people all over the world become interested and invested in the Korean peninsula, the process of unification may need to evolve into an international matter.

Our third and last lecture of the day was on the topic of life in North Korea, presented by North Korean professor Jeong Eun-chan. Our lecturer gave us many examples of shops in Pyongyang, and how items were priced – for example, coffee would cost the equivalent of an average worker’s monthly salary in North Korea. Needless to say, these are items that can only be afforded by high-ranking officials. Meat is also very expensive and beef is especially rare because cows are considered laborers, not a source of meat. In fact, killing a cow is a crime punishable by death. She also talked about education and student life in North Korea. Education in North Korea is provided for every student until high school; after high school graduation, students can choose to get a job or enter university. School dress code is extremely strict and any student who does not dress appropriately would be asked to leave the classroom – apparently, on the day our whole group would have been dismissed if we were North Korean students because of the way we dressed! Professor Jeong compared university to military training – in fact, when she was in university she was an expert in artillery and even learnt how to throw a grenade. In terms of the political climate in North Korea, the population has significantly less deference for their leader compared to the past – Kim Il Sung is still considered a godly figure, but Kim Jong Il was simply considered a leader and Kim Jong Un is even less revered. This decline in popularity could mean that the North Korean people are beginning to lose faith in the regime, especially as outside culture is much more accessible now in North Korea due to technological advance. When asked how much it costs to defect, our lecturer responded that crossing into China costs 10,000USD, and getting to South Korea would cost another 10,000USD.

To conclude our trip to the Ministry of Unification, we had the opportunity to visit the Hanawon Resettlement Center and the nearby Hangyeore School. The Hanawon Resettlement Center is the bigger of the two resettlement centers North Korean refugees go through when they first arrive in South Korea. Out of all the refugees in South Korea, 70% are female and most are between the ages of 20 and 40. At the Hanawon Resettlement Center, about an hour away from Seoul, refugees partake in a three month long resettlement program focusing on improving health conditions, learning about South Korean culture and gaining practical skills that could help them get a job. Female refugees can take part in twelve training courses that teach skills like sewing, cooking and baking. Male refugees can choose from three courses that train them to work with heavy machinery. Furthermore, there are field trips to markets or clothing stores so that the North Korean refugees can become accustomed to purchasing items in South Korean stores. After the program, the refugees can participate in further programs at smaller centers scattered around the country. We were given a tour of the facilities, which consisted of several teaching buildings with a variety of classrooms, health clinics and dormitories. There was also a school on the premises for young North Korean refugee children.

Our last stop was at Hangyeore School, a middle and high school for North Korean refugee students. Just last year, two Hangyeore students visited Duke and hosted a panel to discuss life in North Korea. The school itself is very big and consists of two buildings connected in the middle, symbolizing bridging the gap between the two Koreas. This school is considered a ‘model school’ and has a wide range of facilities, including a classroom for learning how to be a barista. In fact, one of our student guides had won second at a national barista competition. We were able to meet several students and asked them questions about life at the school and the difficulties adjusting to South Korean culture, while they asked us about our experiences as Duke students. Afterwards, we toured the school grounds, visited two dormitory rooms and got to watch a student performance in the assembly hall. Interestingly, one room was set aside as a museum of sorts with textbooks, movies and a set of school uniform from North Korea. Going to Hangyeore and seeing the enthusiasm of the students made us even more excited to begin our work at Kumkang School!

The first week of our stay was definitely a great experience, both informative and exciting. Being able to personally visit the DMZ while learning about the history of the Korean division was a surreal opportunity that the whole group will remember, and will use as the foundation for the rest of our time in South Korea.

Check out some photos from our first week in Seoul!

Traditional Korean Village House

Traditional Korean Village House

Street in Hongdae

Street in Hongdae

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Posing with a South Korean soldier at JSA

Posing with a South Korean soldier at JSA

JSA: South and North Korean soldiers in a staring face-to-face

JSA: South and North Korean soldiers in a staring face-to-face

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Campus of the IUE

Campus of the IUE

Seminar at the IUE

Seminar at the IUE

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Entrance to the Tracks at Dorasan Station

Entrance to the Tracks at Dorasan Station

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Hangyeore School

Hangyeore School

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