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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We've heard a lot about oppression inside North Korea. This morning, we'll listen to people who made it out. About 20,000 North Korean defectors now live in South Korea. Their struggles to adjust offer some insight into how that closed society in North Korea controls its people.

A special private school in Seoul tries to help defectors, and NPR's Louisa Lim paid a visit.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

LOUISA LIM: In a nondescript building in central Seoul, a math instructor is struggling to teach simple fractions. What's immediately noticeable is the age of his students: they're in their early 20s, but they're studying basic math. These young people have been through extraordinary, unthinkable ordeals to get here. They're all defectors from North Korea.

School President Kee Sup Woo says his students are so old because they spent time in limbo after escaping the north.

Mr. KEE SUP WOO (School President): (Through translator) They missed many years of schooling because they were in a third country like China, and the education system in North Korea is basically demolished.

(Soundbite of children singing in foreign language)

LIM: Education in North Korea is largely dedicated to extolling leader Kim Jong-Il, through songs like this. Its aim: to teach obedience at all costs, to maintain the regime, rather than teaching students how to think for themselves.

And for many, like Chun Hyuk-kang, the economics of survival outweighed getting an education. He's 24, but his formal education ended when he was 12, when he fled North Korea. Even before that, he didn't learn much.

Mr. CHUN HYUK-KANG: (Through translator) A lot of students stayed out of school, looking for food or doing business trading things. Schooling in North Korea is free but there are scarcely any supplies, like pens and paper and erasers.

LIM: About 60 young defectors study here at Yeomyung school, which opened six years ago. In drama class, clad in baggy jeans, they fool around, pretending to be robots. But this is therapy.

These students are damaged, from years of hunger and the ever-present fear of living in a society where neighbors inform on each other. Add to that, the dangerous journey out of North Korea, which can takes years living in conditions close to slavery. Woo again.

Mr. WOO: (Through translator) These students had a lot of difficulties escaping North Korea and staying in third countries. In some sense, their human nature was destroyed and their identity was lost, so we can help them find their identity again through classes like this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIM: As the students laugh and shriek, one girl is noticeable for her lack of participation. She sits alone, lost in thought, her expression bereft, a tissue in her hand. Young defectors suffer from shockingly high rates of depression, according to teacher Myung Sook-cho.

Ms. MYUNG SOOK-CHO (Teacher): (Through translator) Ten percent of our students need medicating because they're seriously depressed. More than 50 percent have been diagnosed as clinically depressed, but don't need medication.

LIM: Young defectors often get teased in ordinary schools because of their northern accents and lack of education. But their ranks are swelling fast. Five hundred defectors under 19 have arrived in South Korea so far this year, double the number five years ago.

Teacher Cho has been working with young defectors for almost a decade. She believes their cognitive skills are getting worse, due to long-term food shortages.

Ms. CHO: (Through translator) These days, I am seeing lower intelligence among students. It has to do with their brain growth being stunted, as they haven't been properly fed from infancy. Before I'd explain the same thing 10 times before students would understand it. Now it takes 40 times. I think that's a tragedy.

LIM: This is the only private school for defectors accredited with South Korea's education ministry. It's not cheap; operating costs are over a million dollars a year. Much of the funding comes from Christian churches, who pick up the tuition fees. All the teachers are Christian, and though Christianity is not on the curriculum, the school president says he hopes the students will learn to become Christians.

Twenty-year-old Park Yun-mi was already a believer when she began here a year ago. She says the school has given her a dream, something to live for.

Ms. PARK YUN-MI: (Through translator) I had a dream of being a dancer, but that vanished when I learned my mother had defected to China. That meant I was stigmatized by the North Korean authorities. But now after starting at this school, I want to be a nurse. That's why I say this school saved my life.

(Soundbite of man singing in foreign language)

LIM: Bright and brave you children of Yeomyung, are the words of the school song. Fifty-seven students have graduated from this school. But even then, life isn't necessarily easy. The unemployment rate among defectors is more than four times higher than for ordinary South Koreans. For those who have been through so much to get here, just getting by in this promised land is proving harder than they could have imagined.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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