'So fantastic': Students escape North Korea, discover the internet

Until his early 20s, James* had no idea the internet existed.

It was only after he escaped from North Korea that he learnt about Google and Facebook.

"It's so fantastic, whatever I type, there is a result," James, 25, said. "My new hobby in South Korea was searching YouTube and I saw the videos and [I'd go], 'oh, what is that?'

"We can use computers in North Korea; there was a PC room but there was no internet."

James is one of five North Korean students who arrived in Sydney last month to begin an intensive 30-week English course under the University of Technology Sydney's UTS:INSEARCH language program.

He is currently studying mechanical engineering at a university in South Korea and wants to work on developing sustainable energy sources after he graduates.

Besides the internet, James said having time to himself also helped him realise what he wants to do.

"[At first] I was so nervous about free time, because in North Korea we had no free time," James said.

"After class, we [had to] work for the government. Since you were 10 years -old, you were carrying sand, maintaining the roads, building an apartment."

James said he would now be in the North Korean military if he had stayed in the country.

"You have to do 10 years of military service," he said. "I would have lost my 20s, it would be terrible."

Ann*, 25, who escaped from North Korea in her early teens, said she would also most likely be in the military if she had stayed.

Instead, she is completing a degree in international trade in South Korea and wants to work for the United Nations World Food Program.

Growing up in a small town during the North Korean famine of the 1990s, Ann said that one of her favourite memories was of a team from the UN delivering food and supplies to her school.

"My family was suffering from hunger and I always worried about meals," she said of the famine that began when she was four.

"When I was nine or 10, they provided some candy and cookies and a yellow pencil with an eraser on the back. I still remember the taste of the cookies and the shape of the pencil.

"And I remember all the people had smiles on their faces. We were gathered together exchanging cookies for pencils.

"I don't remember all the details but the impact [of that] was huge."

Ann said that she now wants to "work all around the world" helping other people in need and she has been given advice that learning English is one of the most important things she can do to get to the UN.

She said she still can't believe she is in Sydney.

"[We only knew about Australia] because we learnt in science that kangaroos only live in Australia," Ann said. "Sometimes when I wake up I pinch myself.

All five students are in Australia under a fully funded scholarship program for North Korean defectors that is running for the second time.

UTS's director of the masters of not-for-profit and community management program, Bronwen Dalton, said the scholarships are important for improving the lives of people who have left North Korea.

"There's very high unemployment among North Koreans living in South Korea because they often don't have the skills that translate to success in a capitalist economy," Dr Dalton said.

"In South Korea, they expect you to speak English and be a global citizen and of course, North Koreans have had no opportunity to do either. We're just trying to get these young leaders to get good jobs and show there's hope for the rest of them."

Dr Dalton said meeting North Koreans can help Australians get a better understanding of the country.

"It's a window into the humanity that's behind all this politics and by actually getting to meet these students, we can think more deeply about the consequences of demonising the whole country all the time," she said.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the students and their families.

The story 'So fantastic': Students escape North Korea, discover the internet first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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