North Korean training centre helps defectors learn to live in normal society

A secure compound in is welcoming North Koreans where they are being taught how to live in a new, very different society.

The training centre in South Korea houses defectors from beyond the country's northern border, where they can spend three months learning essential skills needed to get by after escaping the dictatorship.

The Settlement Support Centre for North Korean Refugees, also known as Hanawon, is around two hours' drive from the capital of Seoul and surrounded by woodland, reports the BBC.

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Dr Jeon Jin-yong, who worked at the facility, said arrivals often make it to the complex still living in fear of being caught, adding that it can take a long time before they relax into their new surroundings.

And Kim Sung-hui, 49, who left the centre more than 10 ten years ago and has since launched a successful business selling her own rice wine, agreed.

"It wasn't until I graduated from Hanawon that I finally realised that I was safe," she said.

"The first night on the outside is a memorable one for all defectors. I felt such relief that I was finally in South Korea. I hugged my daughter and started to cry – not because I was sad or lonely – but because we'd survived," she said.

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Up until about 10 years ago, some 3,000 North Korean citizens fled the country every year.

This number then dropped to just 1,000 before the coronavirus pandemic and fell even further to around 100 as lockdowns took hold across the globe and Kim Jong-un sealed the country's borders.

Now that Covid rules have been relaxed, however, Unification Minister Kwon Young-se has warned South Koreans to prepare for a wave of new arrivals.

"We need to think of defectors not as aliens, but as neighbours whose hometown is in the north," he said.

Hanawon is made up of several multi-storey structures boasting a training hub, re-education centre and medical facility, surrounded by a high fence and guarded gate

The isolated refuge has 22 different courses for arrivals to get stuck into, including baking, beauty and clothes making.

Other rooms are even designed to look like places defectors might come across in their new life – including a nail salon and a phone shop.

The facility also places the mental health of its residents at the forefront of its efforts in a bid to help refugees overcome the trauma they faced back home.

The centre may already sound impressive, but South Korea recently pledged to expand its capabilities even further to give defectors the best chance at integrating into their new home.

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