Understanding North Korean Refugees' Education Experience: A contextual analysis of their hardships, failures, and resilience in South Korea


Wednesday, October 31, 2012, 12:00pm to 1:30pm


Harvard-Yenching Library, Common Room, 2 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138

Harvard-Yenching Institute Lunch Talk Series - Co-sponsored by the Korea Institute

Soon-yong Pak, Associate Professor, Department of Education, Yonsei University; Harvard-Yenching Institute Visiting Scholar

Soon-Yong Pak is an anthropologist who currently teaches at Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea. He earned his M.A. in International Development Education from Stanford University, and Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has published several papers on the social history of schooling and cultural dimensions of education. His papers in English include “Assimilation and Segregation of Imperial Subjects: ‘Educating’ the colonized during the Japanese colonial rule of Korea 1910-1945,” Paedagogica Historica (2011) and “Articulating the Boundary between Secularism and Islamism: The Imam-Hatip Schools of Turkey,” Anthropology and Education Quarterly (2004).

Discussant: Avram Asenov Agov, Korea Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow, Korea Institute, Harvard University

Issues concerning the education of resettled refugees within the same ethnic group but in a culturally novel situation differ significantly from those who experience transnational migration or minority status. The North Korean refugee case is thus vastly different from inter-ethnic attitudes and behaviors that often result in within-group favoritism and out-group rejection. It is expected that the cumulative number of refugees from North Korea who have fled to South Korea since 1990 will exceed 25,000 by the end of this year. Most have found adjusting to new life in South Korea to be a daunting challenge. Especially vulnerable are the young refugees in their teens and early 20's. Many experience severe hardship, if not failure, in their transition from a strictly controlled socialist track of education to an open competition-based capitalist education system.

The talk will address the patterns of failure among the young refugees and analyze them in the light of their previous educational and social environments in North Korea. The narratives on the realities of schooling in North Korea, as experienced by former teachers from North Korea, will provide the contextual base for understanding the hardships of the young refugees. Initial findings suggest that the academic failure or resilience of the young Korean refugees can be best explained along the lines of the relational dimensions of cultural competence.