Young North Korean defectors find ‘family’ in man’s home

by Eun-young Jeong

AP

Kim Tae-hoon’s kids call him “uncle,” but he is more of a mom and dad rolled into one. From one boy whom he began caring for in 2006, his brood has since grown to nine — all defectors from North Korea who have found their first real experience of family in his house.

As a single 37-year-old raising nine youngsters, he is a novelty in South Korea’s conservative society. Local media him “Bachelor Mom,” and he is something of a celebrity, appearing on a popular TV lecture series to talk about life with the kids.

But he is also an unusual success story in the South’s struggle to assimilate North Korean defectors, who are often ignored or even resented amid perceptions they are uneducated, brainwashed burdens on society.

“He’s like a mom and a dad,” said Lee Eok-cheol, a first-year high school student, as he played with a Rubik’s Cube in the living room of Kim’s home in Seoul. “I’m getting all the love here that I didn’t get growing up.”

About 25,000 defectors have entered the country since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. But stark differences in education, wealth, social skills and world view often make it very difficult for them to fit into South Korea’s fast-paced, increasingly affluent society. Young defectors also struggle to adjust to a hypercompetitive school system. At times they face discrimination.

Some 146 defectors are youths who came south without immediate family members, according to government figures.

Kim’s boys range from an elementary school student who arrived in South Korea just six months ago to high school seniors who have been with him for several years. Kim requested their ages not be disclosed, as some are older than their classmates, largely because of the time it takes them to catch up academically.

At a recent suppertime, Kim playfully chided the boys for not finishing their salads, joking that they should all go back to North Korea. He gently teased one about his trendy clothes.

“While they are with me, I can help them prepare for a smooth ‘coming out’ in society,” Kim said. “I tell them all the time that it’s not a crime to come from North Korea.”

Most of the boys grew up in the northern tip of North Korea, not far from the Chinese border, and haven’t seen their biological parents in years. Now Kim is guardian for all nine.

They have harrowing stories to tell. When Lee Eok-cheol was small, his mother left for China. His father later left for work one day and never came home. Lee and his brother, who also lives with Kim, crossed a river into China, with a rope tied between them so they wouldn’t be separated by the current. They eventually were transferred to Seoul.

North Korean guards caught the youngest member of Kim’s family, Ju Cheol-kwang, on his first attempt to cross the river into China and sent his mother to a prison camp. He hasn’t seen her since. He made it to South Korea after his third attempt to cross into China.

Now some of the boys are flourishing. One was elected student president of his middle school. Another recently received a national award for volunteer work. They have all traveled to Thailand for community service. Some teach art to children from low-income families. Last month, they performed their biannual musical before an audience that included South Korea’s unification minister.

Kim, with some help from the kids, does most of the chores himself: the cleaning, the laundry, the cooking. Kim Rena, a Catholic nun who has known the family since 2009, once asked him why he didn’t hire a housekeeper. “He replied that he didn’t want his kids raised by strangers,” she said. “He said he needs to raise his own kids.”

Experts and social workers say Kim’s arrangement could be a model for other group homes. The casual, family atmosphere is exactly what lonely young defectors crave, says Heo Su Gyeung at the Rainbow Youth Center, a nonprofit organization that supports North Korean youth.

South Korea has about 16 privately run group homes and dormitory-type schools for young North Koreans without family ties. But Kim Mili, an activist at the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights who has known the family since 2007, says other facilities tend to be more institutional.

Kim Tae-hoon’s life changed dramatically after meeting a fourth-grade defector through a mentoring program.

The boy, Yeom Ha-ryong, arrived from North Korea with his mother but was living largely alone in a small government-subsidized apartment while his mother worked in another city and gave him money. The boy was lucky if he saw his mother once a week, Kim says, and usually only ate one proper meal a day, at school.

After finding Ha-ryong asleep one evening in his dark, bare apartment with the TV on and the door unlocked, Kim decided to move in to care for him. Ha-ryong’s mother kept in touch but stayed away.

Ha-ryong, now in his second year of high school, said, “He’s made me who I am today.”

People who heard about what Kim was doing asked if he could take in more young defectors. As their numbers grew, the group moved to a larger house.

Kim quit his job at a publishing company to fully commit to the kids and registered his home as a social facility, in part so he could get government money, but he also relies on personal donations and project grants.

He said he doesn’t want to take in any more kids, mostly because he dreads saying goodbye to the nine he lives with now. Three will leave next year after graduating from high school.

“I’ve come to think of this home as a real family,” he said. “It’s hard to watch them grow up and head off into society.”