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South Korea breaks ground on facility for North Korean defectors

By Paula Hancocks, CNN
Children, whose parents defected from North Korea, arrive at the Hanawon resettlement facility in South Korea, on July 8, 2009.
Children, whose parents defected from North Korea, arrive at the Hanawon resettlement facility in South Korea, on July 8, 2009.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • South Korea breaks new ground on a resettlement facility
  • Hundreds of defectors learn how to live in a free and prosperous nation
  • Daily lessons teach the basics of life in South Korea
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Seoul (CNN) -- South Korea is breaking new ground Thursday on a resettlement facility for North Korean defectors, reflecting the increasing number of people escaping food shortages and harsh living conditions of the hermit state.

CNN got rare access to the first Hanawon center built in 1999 south of Seoul.

Hundreds of defectors learn how to live in a free and prosperous nation, the exact opposite of the nation they have fled. The oldest student is age 84 and the youngest just one month.

Daily lessons teach the basics of life in South Korea such as how to buy a subway ticket, open a bank account and how to understand the language.

With little outside influence since the Korean War in the 1950s, North Korean language is rigid and difficult for their Southern neighbors to understand.

It's not just physical lessons that many Hanawon students need, said Youn Miryang, a center director.

"25% of refugees are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, they feel anxiety, they can have phobia against the people," the director said.

Counselors help defectors cope with the trauma of fleeing North Korea and in many cases the sense of guilt they feel at having left loved ones behind.

Mobiles are strictly banned here.

With a camera in every phone these days, officials worry photos of defectors could find their way back to North Korea and they say family members would be severely punished by the North Korean military.

The new facility, the third such center, will cost the South Korean government $35 million and will be able to take up to 500 defectors for the mandatory three month training before being released to find their place in South Korean society.

More than 20,000 defectors live in South Korea, according to the Unification Ministry.

At the ground-breaking, Minister Hyun In-take said it is more than a building.

"With realistic concerns about future unification, we are making substantial and practical preparation for a society in which North and South Korean people live together," the minister said.

Jiyeon Lee contributed to this report.

 
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