THE NUMBER of saetomin living in South Korea has been increasing incessantly, and is now about to reach 20,000. Saetomin, literally meaning "new settler," indicates a North Korean defector living in South Korea. There has been a gradual growth in numbers of students applying for admission to Yonsei, and about 50 saetomin students are currently attending Yonsei University. In the admissions process for 2011, 34 saetomin students with different backgrounds and ages applied to Yonsei University and only seven of them were admitted, recording a success rate of one in five. While more and more saetomin are coming to the Republic of Korea, as well as to Yonsei, how well is Yonsei University prepared for students?
The plight of saetomin students
Though Yonsei University certainly provides one of the most outstanding support systems among universities in Korea, saetomin students still have far more hardships in adjusting to the campus environment than other non- saetomin students. When a saetomin comes to the Republic of Korea, he or she usually faces a lot of difficulties adapting to the different culture, due to their educational background, language, and the traumatic experiences they underwent in North Korea, not to mention their ordeal in the process of reaching South Korea.
"The Admissions Office only accepts students equipped with suitable academic ability to take courses in Yonsei University," says Jeong Dae-shik (Senior Coordinator, Office of Admissions). Nevertheless, saetomin students face special difficulties in following academic curricula due to the large discrepancies between the education systems of the North and the South.
Among many subjects, English is the most demanding part for saetomin students because they learn Russian as their second language in school and English is never important or mandatory in North Korea. "My saetomin tutee and I spend most of our time studying English n like how to interpret fast and accurately n I heard that in the North, saetomin students finish their secondary education in the North barely knowing the alphabet," says Lee Jin-yong (Jr., Dept. of Business Admin.), who is currently participating in the Ha Na tutoring program.
Even though both South and North Koreans use Korean, the usage of the language has become quite different due to more than 50 years of separation. "Many saetomin students find understanding texts in course readings problematic. Moreover, competing with native South Korean students trained in achieving good scores in exams makes it harder for saetomin students to attain a decent GPA," says Jeong Chong-hoon (Chaplain, Office of the Chaplain).
The language barrier may seem to be a trivial matter for saetomin students whose stay in South Korea is longer.
Still, many of them say that frequent usage of foreign words in the South Korean language or different intonations in the North Korean language make them reluctant and afraid to start a conversation with South Koreans. "I feared communicating with others when I came to South Korea at first. The tone, expressions, and even the way of speaking were not the same as the language I had been speaking so far. I found South Koreans usually speak indirectly whereas North Korean are straightforward, which may sound aggressive to South Koreans," says Han Jae-in (Pseudonym, Sogang Univ.), a saetomin student.
Apart from subsidizing tuition fees, financial support from the school is insufficient. Leading a life on a whole new basis, it is not easy for saetomin to be economically stable. Especially, some students who have come to South Korea alone receive subsidies from the government; however, the government subsidy is fixed to a minimum level of around ₩400,000, with which one can barely subsist. "I know that surviving from the competition in this society is up to me, and yet more sufficient economic support in terms of living expenses would spare me some time to focus more on studying," says a saetomin student, Kang Ji-sup (Pseudonym, Yonsei Univ.).
The stress that results from broken family ties is huge for saetomin students. It is quite rare that the whole family live together in South Korea. Some live in South Korea with their siblings or a single parent, or even alone. "They underwent numerous life-threatening obstacles before they stepped on the land of South Korea. Losing a family member while moving to South Korea often begets survivor guilt. Some of them cannot be free from worrying and missing their family left in North Korea," says Jeong.
Saetomin students are often conscious of being judged, whether people around them intended it or not. "When people find out that I am from North Korea, they regard it is peculiar, which now I think is natural for them to feel. However, when I first came here, such reactions deepened my sense of isolation that I felt here," says Han. Even when they graduate and look for a job, they are sometimes devalued, judged at most with a bias due to their personal background. Sometimes, the older generation shows hostility towards saetomin due to decades of anti-communism propaganda in the past.
Saetomin aid system of Yonsei
Saetomin students receive four years of full scholarship regardless of their GPA, including a free three-credit summer or winter session. Besides, ₩200,000 of book fee is provided every semester.Yonsei University also offers full tuition for saetomin students willing to study in the Foreign Language Institute (FLI) on campus.
A tutoring program called "Ha Na Tutoring" is provided to give assistance in studying for saetomin students. The
intention of this program is to provide individual care for them by introducing student tutors. "As I know saetomin students have more hardships in studying here, I always try to make sure to match those saetomin tutees with tutors even when they are late for the deadline of registration," says Lee Hye-won (Education Expert, Center for Education Development and Services). Lee also adds that those saetomin students usually appreciate tutoring programs and tutors more than other students.
The Office of the Chaplain
The Office of the Chaplain has organized a care system for saetomin students since 2003. It conveys the needs
of saetomin students to the school administration on behalf of them. As a result, the saetomin aid system has been improved compared to the past. "We also connect them with donors outside the campus and grant scholarships so that they can save living expenses," says Jeong, who is in charge of these saetomin care programs conducted by the Office of the Chaplain. In addition, the saetomin society, "Reunification Han Ma Dang" on campus is funded by
churches outside the campus.
Saetomin society "Reunification Han Ma Dang"
Yonsei University has a unique saetomin society called "Reunification Han Ma Dang." This organization was first established in 2003, providing socially friendly places enabling saetomin students and non-saetomin students to meet and get to know each other. People from diverse backgrounds - including saetomin students, native South Korean students and foreign students n get together and have regular sessions. Various activities related to North Korea, such as lectures or forums, are held every session. The members can socialize with each other by going camping or organizing informal gatherings like any other dongahree (society) on campus.
The power to change the future
Despite those difficulties mentioned above, recently, some saetomin students have managed to achieve outstanding academic results, making the most out of their unique experience as a saetomin. Many saetomin arrive in South Korea via several countries. During their sojourns in foreign countries, they could learn how to adapt to a new environment and broaden their perspectives by experiencing the diverse cultures of various countries. Han says, "some friends of mine receive a nearly perfect GPA and actively look for chances preparing for their future with their unique experience as saetomin."
In addition, the potential of saetomin students should not be underestimated considering the current state of Korea as a divided nation. Saetomin are South Koreans who understand North Korea the most. At the same time, they are also North Koreans who understand South Korea the most. Their future values lie in contributing to reunification or settling Korea after reunification by connecting the two societies of Koreans to minimize the huge gap that exists between them. It is undeniable that college education is a gateway for saetomin to join the mainstream of Korean society. Helping them to become a member of this society is the first step to setting a cornerstone for reunification.