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Forging a New Path
Written by Yunho Choi | Published. 2020.03.17 18:32 | Count : 67

An interesting aspect of living in South Korea is our peculiar hermit neighbor to the north. Over the years, over 30,000 of them have escaped to South Korea and they provide a unique opportunity to help people that are struggling to adjust to life in a new country (http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20190908000120). One especially daunting obstacle they face is English language proficiency. Thus, when I entered high school my friends and I were interested in participating in a volunteer program that teaches English to North Korean refugees. As students at an international school with an American curriculum and most of us born in the United States, I felt that my friends and I would have the necessary aptitude and capability. 

[Students filling out worksheets/Photo credit: Yunho Choi]

Thus, we started to build a program to provide free English lessons to North Korean children. We contacted many NGOs in Seoul but one after another rejected our proposal as they did not allow minors to teach English to the North Koreans. However, LINK graciously gave us the contact number of a government office in Suwon called the “Gyeonggi Women’s Vision Center,” where a North Korean woman named Jungshim Lee worked and was looking for English teachers for young North Korean children. After meeting with us and confirming that we were indeed international students with native-level English ability, Ms. Lee approved of our program. This began our journey that has provided English lessons to over 120 North Korean refugee children during the last two and a half years. 

[Teaching English expressions to the class/Photo credit: Yunho Choi]

The classes are bi-monthly and held during the weekend, with the children’s ages ranging from 5 to 14 years old. There are usually around 10 to 15 children per session. As we are only given one classroom, the older and younger children are forced to learn together. We initially thought that this would be an issue as the English level among the students would be varied, but Ms. Lee explained that the North Korean children were far behind their South Korean peers in English proficiency as some had never attended an after-school academic program before while others had only been in the country less than a year. 

The classes begin with a group lecture where a topic is introduced through a large screen. The teachers first explain the expressions and then practice pronunciation. Participation by calling upon a specific student is important as this ensures that everyone gets involved and we can hear each student’s pronunciation. We then move on to small groups where the teachers can instruct the students based on the specific needs of each child. The worksheets made by us include matching vocabulary, fill in the blanks, and coloring exercises for the very young children. The end of the class involves an English sing-along video based on the topic for the day.

The classes have been both demanding and rewarding. One 14 year old student (who asked to remain unnamed) could barely read English. Communicating with and teaching the students, for the most part, is difficult. When the program first started, the students were very shy and some would cry when their parents left the classroom. However, after getting to know each other, the students have opened up to us and now smile when they run up to us before each class. 

I have come to realize that the class is not just about teaching English as I believe that the children are being exposed to different cultures and experiences with teachers from the U.S., Canada, and New Zealand. They pepper me with questions about other countries and one even amazed me by asking if I thought the current U.S. president would be reelected this year. 

As the program has continued, we have been recruiting underclassmen to join as the original members will be graduating next year. Our ambitious goal is to recruit three new international students this year and three more next year in hopes of continuing the classes. While our offers have been turned down by some who preferred a resume-padding internship, we have been trying to convince others to try something new and help the community we all live in. Hopefully, we can spread awareness of our program and introduce others to the joy and satisfaction of teaching such wonderful children. 




Yunho Choi
Junior (Grade 11)
Seoul Scholars International

Yunho Choi  student_reporter@dherald.com

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