ANSEONG, South Korea – Dressed in white or yellow T-shirts and black slacks, the dozens of people at Wednesday’s ceremony looked like typical South Korean company trainees. But the high security at the fenced compound hinted at a different kind of induction.
They are North Korean defectors learning a new way of life in a capitalist society.
They have flooded South Korea in recent years to escape hunger and harsh political oppression in their communist homeland. Hanawon, located in the farming village Anseong, is the government facility where they go through a three-month course that teaches computer skills and such everyday lessons as how to use ATMs and shop in supermarkets.
Hanawon marked its 10th anniversary Wednesday.
“While in the North, we knew there were computers, but we lived without ever touching a (keyboard) even when we were over 30 years old as we were eking out a daily living. But now it’s very fun and interesting to learn the computer here,” one defector, identified only by her family name Lim, told reporters on a government-run tour.
Lim said she hopes to bring her 13-year-old son from the communist country and live in the South.
Reporters were asked not to use the full names of defectors at the facility, citing security concerns for their families in the North.
Hanawon, 50 miles (75 kilometres) south of the capital Seoul, has expanded as the flow of asylum seekers has picked up.
More than 16,000 North Koreans have defected to the South since the Korean War ended in 1953, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles South Korea’s relations with the North.
Most, however, have arrived in recent years as living conditions in the North have deteriorated. Annual arrivals have reached more than 3,000, according to the Unification Ministry.
Activists claim tens of thousands of North Koreans are living in hiding in China, through which many take a long and risky land journey to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries on their way to eventual asylum in South Korea.
Also Wednesday, a 14-member Thai delegation composed of immigration, police and court officials toured the facility and held talks with South Korean officials. They came to South Korea on Friday to improve “co-operation on the immigration issue,” a South Korean official told The Associated Press. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.
It was not immediately clear if they discussed how soon Seoul would be able to accept any of the approximately 150 North Koreans who are believed held at detention centres in the Southeast Asian nation.
In a speech at Hanawon to mark its anniversary, Unification Minister Hyun In-taek vowed that South Korea “will make utmost efforts to protect the human rights of North Korean defectors who stay in foreign countries.”
South Korea has said it would accept any North Korean who wants to resettle, but is concerned that the rapid increase in arrivals could strain inter-Korean ties and complicate international efforts to persuade the North to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Relations between the two Koreas have frayed badly since conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office in February last year with a pledge to get tough on the North and its nuclear ambitions. North Korea responded by severing most ties and suspending key joint projects.
North Korea further raised tensions with its May nuclear test and last week’s missile launches in defiance of new U.N. sanctions.
Hyun called for efforts to embrace North Korean defectors, calling their successful resettlement a “litmus test” for whether South Korea is moving toward becoming an advanced country.
Hanawon, established in 1999, is capable of hosting 750 people at a time and has also a branch in a town north of Seoul, according to the ministry. Hyun said South Korea also plans to set up another facility, beginning next year. He did not elaborate.
Besides the course on assimilation, North Korean defectors also get financial aid, including housing and job training.
South Korea provides 19 million won ($14,900) to a North Korean defector as one-time settlement aid and offers an additional 15 million won if the defector works in a company for three years – an incentive designed to help defectors stand on their own.
“The moves have motivated defectors to find jobs,” said Lee Keum-soon, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a state-run think-tank .
Despite the training, some defectors are believed to be living below the poverty line because they cannot get decent jobs. That’s due mainly to a lack of education and widespread prejudice among South Koreans, who view those from the North’s socialist system as lazy.
“The programs I went through were not much help once I entered South Korean society and they didn’t match the reality,” a North Korean defector who came to the South in 2003 told The Associated Press. He asked not to be named, citing the issue’s sensitivity.