Photo/IllutrationTeam members, including defectors from North Korea, chat during a break from practice in Namyangju, South Korea, in June. (Toru Nakakoji)

  • Photo/Illustraion

NAMYANGJU, South Korea--This is no run-of-the-mill amateur baseball team. What sets the Oullim players apart is that none of them are native South Koreans.

Five were born in China to mothers who were victims of human trafficking or got stuck there for other reasons and had children. The others are defectors or the offspring of defectors from North Korea.

The team was formed last autumn with the aim of encouraging the players to engage with South Korean society through the sport and to nurture ties with other ethnic North Koreans.

A recent practice session in a field in this Seoul suburb resonated with cheers from the coach about the way the players, all casually dressed but sporting partial uniforms, had performed that day.

“Oullim” can mean several things in Korean, one of which is “communication.” Students at a school in Seoul where defectors from North Korea study, along with those born in third countries who also attend classes, were encouraged to join the team.

Current team members, 13 male and female players, range in age from 17 to 23. They have been in South Korea for between three and nine years.

The team is the brainchild of an association set up to nurture the country's sporting resources. Former professional baseball player Choi Ik-seong is the public face of the association.

Choi has considerable experience managing a baseball team whose members were delinquent juveniles or children from impoverished backgrounds. The team was set up by police as a way to broaden the kids' horizons.

In 2017, when Choi arranged for coaches to assist league activities, he met two children of defectors from North Korea.

“They gradually changed as a result of playing baseball," Choi said. "Initially, they had a passive nature but then came to lead the team in a proactive manner. I thought, why don’t we invite young defectors from North Korea?”

The number of defectors in South Korea as of June reached about 33,000. They are offered courses to learn the practicalities of living in South Korea or vocational training at a facility dedicated to helping defectors fit in.

Although Koreans on both sides of the border share the same language, North Koreans speak in an intonation that immediately identifies them as being from the North, which inevitably fuels prejudice.

Because of language difficulties, defectors tend to encounter all sorts of obstacles in starting afresh in the South, in part due to a general wariness over their work ethic, based on having lived in an authoritarian state, compared with that of a free society. Educating the younger generation is especially challenging.

A defector who assists the Oullim said, “In North Korea, ideology education is focused, and 90 percent of what is taught to children differs from that of South Korea.”

A survey of academic achievement by the South Korean government found that South Koreans in the 9 to 24 age bracket, results were good for 42 percent based on how much they earned. But another survey by a foundation of resident expatriates from North Korea found that only 22 percent of defectors in the 10 to 18 age bracket achieved the same rating.

Choi views baseball as a way for young North Koreans to overcome the disadvantages of their educational paths.

“Baseball can be one method for them to communicate with South Korean society," he said. “If they talk about baseball with people around them or gain more friends through the sport, they will be automatically welcomed as members of society, leading to possible job opportunities.”

All of the Oullim team members are novice baseball players, having first encountered the sport in South Korea.

Ho Chung Hyeok, 19, arrived in South Korea with his father via China, where they experienced a harsh existence.

“I've always loved sports, and had been interested in sports that are not played in North Korea,” said Ho. “After giving baseball a try, I found it fun and invigorating.”

Being in the team gives those from North Korea an opportunity to communicate with one another through a range of related activities.

“Being in a group setting, we can communicate, enjoy being together and become friends,” said Yang Heon Hui, 20, who had crossed into China from North Korea via the Tumen river that forms a natural boundary between the two countries, with her mother in 2015.

Yang said her dream is to work with pet animals in the future.

Choi hopes team members will stay in touch after they graduate from the school, saying, "Please come and practice playing baseball with us."

At a game between South Korean professional baseball league teams Doosan Bears and NC Dinons, Ho and Yang, on behalf of the members of Oullim, appeared in the pre-game first pitch ritual.

The special event was realized after Choi negotiated with officials of the Doosan Bears, the organizer of the game.

“Originally, our intention was simply to watch the game,” said Choi. “But since our team’s objective is to enable its members to integrate with society, I asked them both to appear in front of the audience and let them know that our team exists.”

Choi is now working hard to improve the team's skills with the aim of playing against another team before the year-end.