"Some of them have graduated from high school in North Korea, but their learning capacity is very poor," said Woo, a 64-year-old retired technology executive. "In some cases, we start out teaching them at the elementary school level."
Although the Yeomyung School that Woo heads near central Seoul offers just a snapshot of the issue, it's a worrying reminder for South Korean leadership that should the North collapse, millions of undereducated, traumatized and malnourished North Koreans might come flooding across the border.
"Everybody has the same reason for leaving (North Korea): They're hungry," said a 28-year-old student at Yeomyung School, a woman with bangs in her eyes who like many of her classmates looks small for her age, a calling card of years of poor nutrition. "It's just a question of how long they suffer."
The woman asked that her name not be used for fear of bringing retribution, as in labor camps or worse, to relatives still living in the North.
[ ... ]
Asked recently what would happen if it were millions, and not thousands, of North Koreans coming south, Woo shook his head and said, "There would be a lot of chaos."
While predictions that Pyongyang will crumble are as frequent as they are wrong, concerns have been magnified this year by an increase of aggressive behavior by the North - the torpedoing of a South Korean warship in March that killed 46 sailors and an artillery barrage on a South Korean island last month that killed four people.
Many observers link those attacks to questions in Pyongyang about whether Kim Jong-il's heir apparent, a son only in his late 20s, would face being overthrown by older relatives or military commanders after his father dies. Kim Jong-il's health is suspected to be on the decline after a 2008 stroke.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak earlier this month added to the growing sense that change will come sooner than later, saying, "I feel that reunification is drawing near."
Officials in Seoul acknowledge the myriad issues that a reunification of the Korean Peninsula would present, though the list of problems is more obvious than their solutions.
A study commissioned by the South Korean parliament projected the costs of reunification at some $1.3 trillion, according to the Yonhap news service in Seoul. There have been suggestions that should Pyongyang collapse, the figure could be higher.
The Kim family has ruled North Korea since the armistice was signed that ended the overt hostilities between the two Koreas, over 60 years ago. They have ruled by a "cult of personality" that weds poverty of the peasantry with ruthless state control and Juche, a melding of political philosophy with an almost religious reverence for the Kim family that makes Marxism look like Montessori. It has all come together over the decades since the Korean war ended to keep the populace isolated from and ignorant of the outside world.
China may be the only ally the North Korean state has, but they have one bit of common ground with the South -- neither country would be well-served by a few million refugees with adjustment issues on their borders should the North collapse.
When the North Korean regime finally collapses, it won't just be China and South Korea dealing with the fallout of refugees with adjustment issues -- it will require a global effort to deal with 24 million people who all have the psychopathologies normally associated with the trauma of captivity.
Look at the shot of the far east at night at the top of this post. From space you can see the 38th parallel.
That big black spot, with no lights shining? That is North Korea.
Oh yeah. There are going to be adjustment issues.