SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- Wearing jeans, digital music players dangling from their necks and faces speckled with acne, they look like typical youth in South Korea.
Only at this school, the students are all North Korean defectors, and the lessons here are aimed at more than getting good grades -- but at integrating them into a new way of life.
The Yeomyung School is one of a handful of small private schools seeking to keep young North Korean defectors from falling through the cracks of society in their new home. Many of the students have dropped out of regular South Korean schools, facing harassment from their peers for their differences and unable to apply lessons they learned in North Korea, where education is focused on churning out devoted followers of the totalitarian regime.
Defectors have flooded to the South in recent years, with a record 1,894 arriving in 2004. South Korea's Unification Ministry, in charge of North Korean issues, said it supports education for 1,659 defector students aged from 6 to 24 -- some 28 percent of all defectors now living in South Korea.
Statistics on the problem of how many defectors drop out of school are hard to find, but one civic group surveyed three top universities and found nearly 50 percent of defector students dropped out or were expelled. The group tried to get a more complete survey but a dozen other universities declined to respond to their questions.
"The government has no will to take care of these kids," said Ma Sok-hun, head of the group Hanul Samter. The dropout rate "is such an embarrassing result."
The Unification Ministry said it keeps statistics on dropouts but declined to release them, claiming they weren't completely accurate.
All defectors young and old arriving in South Korea go through a three-month program at a high-security center that aims to give them basic knowledge for living in a capitalist society. Still, children heading back to regular school -- sometimes after years off while living in hiding as refugees in China before making it to the South -- find they simply can't keep up.
"At first other children are nice to them but then they bully them in the end," said Woo Kee-sup, president of Yeomyung School. "Most (defector) students can't survive at a normal school."
Realizing the problem, the Unification Ministry said it is planning to set up a transitional school for children next year.
But for now, the organizers of the Yeomyung School say they're filling a need that the government has been reluctant to acknowledge, providing a lifeline for children defectors since opening in September 2004.
The North Korean youths have had to cope with famine and economic crisis, and know how to get by with only the basic necessities for life. But Cho Myung-sook, vice president of the Yeomyung School, noted that South Korea's modern society is simply too complicated for many -- with its always-wired technology culture and breakneck development.
"Even youth who have had higher education in North Korea can't adapt themselves to South Korea," she said.
Woo said only about 100 students attend special schools like Yeomyung -- which administrators said was the largest of four such full-time facilities in South Korea with capacity for 30 youths, who range in age from 17 to 25. Located on a bustling street in a southern Seoul neighborhood, the school takes up two floors of a commercial building with three classrooms, a dining hall and computer center.
Students attend Yeomyung for up to three years, and the school boasts that all seven of its graduates last year were accepted to universities.
The school is funded by about 20 churches and other private donations, and bible classes are a part of the curriculum. Students are taught they shouldn't be subject to ideology like in the North, but that each are "precious sons and daughters of God," said Cho.
In one classroom, a student speaking in a North Korean accent reads a Korean legend from a standard middle-school textbook. Other lessons focus on famous artists, or talking about how history can be viewed from different perspectives, teachers said. Math, English and sociology are also taught.
Those who attend are fed and given transportation vouchers. Teachers also visit students at home on weekends to bring extra food, all part of the nurturing environment they seek to create for the defectors.
The students include five youths who braved the trip to the South on their own, without any relatives. One 21-year-old who is alone here said his hunger drove him at age 11 to swim across the river forming the North Korea-China border. He survived in China by begging, gaining the help of a South Korean priest to get schooling in China before making it to the South last year.
"I don't have the basic knowledge to attend South Korean school," said the student, who didn't want his name publicized because of fears that relatives in the North could face punishment. "It was God's will to bring me here," he said of the Yeomyung School.
The student said the toughest part about living in the South now is spending holidays alone. He has tried to contact his parents back in his home village, but had heard they were dead, possibly from famine.
In the future, the student said he hopes to become an architect or doctor, possibly one day returning to the North if the Koreas are reunited.
The school's president Woo said that's just what he hopes -- that someday his students can serve to help reintegrate the Koreas that both deeply long for reunification after decades of division.
"If North Koreans don't understand South Koreans, these children can help them, be like ambassadors," he said. "That's why God let them live."