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North and South Korea Far Apart

SEOUL, May 6 2011 (IPS) - Young North Koreans who have defected to the South are determined to see their dream – a unified Korea – become reality, even if their counterparts in the South don’t quite agree.

“My dream is to get the two Koreas united. In a united Korea, I will run a shelter to feed hungry North Koreans,” said 20-year-old Yu Chull-Min (not his real name), a North Korean studying at Yomyung School in Seoul where students from the North, aged 16 to 24, are finishing high school.

But this lofty dream often gets lost in confusion and sometimes humiliation, as these young North Korean realise how different they are from South Korean youths.

The biggest difference is their divergence on the unification issue. In a unification camp rally held in April, undergraduates from both South and North gathered to talk about their vision on the unification of two Koreas.

“Why should we bother to unify two Koreas?” said a student from South Korea. “We must recognise that two Koreans have drifted too far away from each other. Therefore, wouldn’t it be more comfortable for two Koreas to stay apart as it is now?”

A dozen North Korean students in the meeting were taken aback. “How shocked I was,” said Lee Hyun- Ji (not his real name) a 25-year-old student from the North.

“The way she talks is a far departure from the way we used to speak in North Korea. Back in the 1990s when I was kid in the North, we falsely believed South Koreans were worse off than we were. And our dream was to unify two Koreas so that we may help South Korea with food.”

Even more frustrating for North Korean students was the thought that the South Korean’s views seemed to represent the opinion of the majority of South Korean students on the reunifications. “Many of our friends believe two Koreas are too different to stay together in the same state entity,” said Kim Ju-Ri, 21, a South Korean student in Handong University in the southern city of Pohang.

Yomyung School vice-president Jo Myung-Sook explained why unification is a desperate dream for North Koreans. “Because the unification is the only way for them to reunite with their families that they had left behind,” she said. “Also, it is the only way for them to get the starving North Koreans out of the hunger and poverty.”

Most of these North Koreans endured not only separation from their families, but also the pain and terror crossing the border from North Korea into China, and then on to the South.

Many believe that South Korean students are more individualistic, while North Korean students are more united in their group-minded pursuit of unification.

The difference explains why South Koreans appear indifferent or insensitive to North Korean students. “We South Koreans have our own individual goal to pursue. We would rather pass it unless it is something compelling to serve our purpose,” said Lee Min-A, a 23-year-old undergraduate studying economics in Handong University.

The contrast between South Koreans’ focus on individual merit, against North Koreans’ group-oriented attitude, became more pronounced this year, after turmoil plagued South Korea ‘s top science university in the wake of four suicides. Four students killed themselves amid mounting pressure to get high grades.

The difference in level of education between students from North and South is also obvious. North Koreans students realise soon enough that they lag far behind their South Korean peers in areas of study that do not exist in the North, such as English and computers. As a result, North Korean students have to deal with technology-oriented language they could not pick up.

“I just smile it away, even though I do not understand what South Korean peers say, pretending to get it. Because I don’t want to let South Korean peers think I am different,” said Yu Chull-Min at Yomyung School. Yu occasionally encounters South Korean peers in his work as a volunteer helping the homeless.

Another difference is that South Koreans are used to luxuries alien to youths from the North. “I felt the outrage when I saw students here did not eat all of (their) food just because they don’t like it,” said Lee Hyun-Ji (not her real name), a student who fled North Korea.

“When I see leftover food, I am reminded of North Korean children who were starved to death (when I was there),” said Lee, who arrived in South Korea in 2006 via China.

The food scarcity that has plagued at least one-third of the 23 million North Korean population since the 1990s is the major reason some 10,000 North Koreans have left their hometowns, crossed the border into China, and finally settled in South Korea.

The differences are a source of frustration for North Koreans. “The gap between their dream and reality often ends up being a disheartened mind that leads some of them to turn to smoke and alcohol,” said Jo Myung-Sook.

On the other hand, there are those who see the differences as a chance for young North Koreans in the South to bridge the gap when the two Koreas are united. The new reality that North Koreans are feeling to the South is a window to what lies ahead for North Koreans when the two Koreas are eventually reunited.

“For this reason, we believe we are going to take up a bridge role between two Koreas when two Koreas are united,” said Lee Hyun-Ji.

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