Inside Hanawon: a school for North Korean defectors

Inside Hanawon

Meet “C”, a woman in her twenties who fled North Korea in search of a better life.Prior to his daring escape, he glimpsed the outside world through bootleg TV shows. Fascinated by the “different reality” portrayed in South Korean shows, she yearned for freedom and human rights, which were rare in her native country. In 2019, she finally arrived in South Korea and found herself inside Hanawon, a government-run facility designed to train and assimilate defectors into society.

A must stop for North Korean defectors

Upon arrival in South Korea, all defectors must spend three months inside Hanawon, training in various aspects of life outside their isolated and impoverished home country. The structure covers history, culture, professional skills and daily activities, offering a glimpse of what awaits them in their new life. For many defectors, this period is essential for the transition to South Korean society. However, concerns express about the effectiveness and restrictions of the current system.

system challenges

The current approach requires defectors to undergo security checks by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) upon arrival, followed by three months of training at Hanawon. This process can be frustrating and time-consuming, with defectors spending nearly six months in government facilities before entering society. Critics argue that this system is outdated and overly restrictive, making it difficult for defectors to integrate into their new surroundings.


Professional training and cultural familiarization

Hanawon provides vocational training in 22 areas, mainly focusing on manual labor. In addition, the facility familiarizes defectors with South Korean culture and life, encouraging them to listen to popular music and participate in traditional activities. However, while some find the training useful, others have expressed frustration, feeling unprepared for the real world.

Assistance tailored that individual requires

Critics argue that Hanawon’s approach needs to be more flexible, providing assistance tailored to each defector’s specific needs.Not all experiences of living in North Korea are equal, and some defectors may have lived in China for years before arriving in South Korea, giving them more time to adapt. The institution should adapt its training to different aspirations and ambitions, rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all approach.

Psychological Balance and Future Challenges

Defectors often arrive in South Korea with the hope and expectation of a better life. However, their enthusiasm might be dampened as they leave Hanawon, as they face the challenges of adjusting to a new society. Many struggle financially, with some facing unemployment even years after arrival. The difficulties of life after defection underscore the need for ongoing support and mental health care for defectors.

Toward Community Support

Many experts and activists believe that a community-based approach might better address the challenges face by defectors. Local centers offering ongoing assistance and fellowship could be expand, offering more personalized and ongoing support. Some of the training currently offer inside Hanawon could be turned into optional local courses, facilitating a smoother transition for defectors. Such community support would also alleviate feelings of isolation and help maintain connections with loved ones left behind.


Hanawon plays a crucial role in shaping and assimilating North Korean defectors into South Korean society. However, the system criticize for its rigidity and limited effectiveness in preparing defectors for future challenges. Tailored assistance and community support are offer as solutions to improve the transition process. By providing continuous care and understanding individual needs, South Korea can better support those who have risk their lives to escape a repressive regime. Ultimately, providing defectors with the freedom and opportunity they seek is essential to fostering a successful new chapter in their lives.