We Are One
Dangerous, isolated, and repressive. Growing up in Seoul and later in Portland, these were the words I was used to hearing about north Korea (or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea –DPRK) from my parents, media, and my peers. The image of north Korea was portrayed as being vastly different from south Korea (or the Republic of Korea –ROK). Due to this stark contrast between the two nations, I wanted to understand north Korea beyond the dominant narrative perpetuated by the US and the ROK. Furthermore, I wanted to know what was important enough to divide a nation and separate families for over 60 years. Like many Koreans, my family members were separated from each other and their hometowns after Korea was divided. I was not satisfied with an explanation that blamed north Korea’s “communism” as the reason for this division and absolved south Korea of any responsibility. There had to be more to this story.
My curiosity and desire to hear the “other side of the story” led me to KEEP (Korean Exposure & Education Program). KEEP, a cultural exchange program for people of Korean descent in North America, works toward the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula. I was honored to be selected as a participant in the 10th KEEP-DPRK delegation to north Korea. Through this rare opportunity, I wanted to experience and learn about north Korea outside of books, articles, and CNN news coverage. I embarked on a journey to begin formulating my own thoughts on the DPRK and to better realize how my understanding of the divided Koreas affected how I envisioned reunification for the peninsula.
Our nine-member group was fortunate enough to have a film crew with us documenting our entire trip. Returning KEEP alumni noted that the north Korean policy for visitors seemed to have loosened up. We were allowed to take both cameras and cell phones into the country. We traveled to various parts of the country. We met with several groups and speakers and visited more than 30 different sites including a farm, a Christian church, Mount Baekdu, the DMZ (De-Militarized Zone), the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il, the Arirang festival (also known as the “Mass Game”), and the Sinchon War Massacre Museum. We returned with close to 4,000 captivating photos and over 48 hours of video footage from the trip.
When I told people that I was going to the DPRK, some of them warned me that what I was going to see would not be the “real” north Korea. Although I understood where they were coming from, it was important for me keep things in perspective. It was vital for me to recognize that I could not expect to see and understand any country and its culture from a short visit. It would be unfair for me to expect to “figure out” north Korea in just 11 days.
Moreover, I had to consider both historical and cultural context entering north Korea. The US and the DPRK are still technically at war with one another; only a ceasefire policy is in place. An enemy state would be somewhat suspicious of visitors from the US, given the history of war trauma and the devastating realities inflicted by US military force (e.g., bombing of north Korean villages and farmlands). It seemed reasonable to expect a guarded and defensive stance from north Koreans as we, “Americans,” stepped onto their soil.
Contrary to this assumption, we were received with warm welcome from north Koreans. Our guides and translators went above and beyond to accommodate our needs, such as our requests for specific site visits. Some may argue that north Korea covers up the horrible things that are happening within its borders by treating its guests exceptionally well. Although there may be some truth to this, any government would try to “hide its dirty laundry.” Putting one’s best foot
forward does not necessarily mean that north Korea is pretending to be “clean.” It could be a way of creating a welcoming environment for their guests. Even though north and south Korea may be politically different, Koreans share the same Joseon culture. Hosts are expected to provide the best food, drinks, rooms, etc. for their guests. In other words, it would be culturally dismissive to assert that the only reason why north Koreans were welcoming hosts to us was because they were trying to conceal their “real and shameful” problems.
It is true that we could not use their public transportation systems or roam around the city by ourselves like tourists in Europe. However, the notion that my interactions with north Koreans were controlled was not completely accurate. The interactions we had that occurred organically with villagers, families, and people (in general) dispelled the stereotypes about how staged north Korea was. A group of us would frequently go on a morning run by the Taedong River. There, we had a chance to play volleyball with young people and moved to arirang style dance with “halmuh-nees” (grandmas).
When we went to Mt. Baekdu, there were many north Koreans from all over the country visiting this famous mountain, just like us. We met a youth league group and sang with them under a bridge while we were all waiting for the rain to stop. These young people (above photo) kept coming up to us and asked us to take pictures with them.
When we went to Moran Hill Park, where families, couples, and sports groups frequently spend time, some of us caught frogs with children by the stream. We sang and danced with a “halmuh-nee” (below photo) who was waiting for her senior dance group to arrive. We also met a big family having a lunch picnic, and they invited us, a group of complete strangers, to eat with them. For everyday north Koreans to take genuine interest in us seemed to contradict the image depicted in the States.
One of the first things I noticed when I was in the DPRK was that everywhere we went, whether on a morning run, on busy streets or a public park, I saw people squatting on grassy areas, pulling weeds as if they were doing their own yard work. When I asked one of our translators if these people were paid to do this work, she looked at me slightly puzzled (as if it were an obvious thing that happened in other countries). She explained that people volunteer their free time to maintain these grassy terrains. The understanding was that this is their country and they should to take care of it as if it were their own home. I was deeply moved by the mundane task of weeding because of what it represented. Even with such an ordinary task, there was a great sense of ownership instilled in what it meant to take care of their land.
As we interacted more with north Koreans, this sense of nationalistic pride and devotion seemed to be pervasive. When we met with college students who majored in science and technology, we exchanged what our career goals were. I was taken aback by their answers. Many of them stated that their ambitious career goals were to help advance “oori nara” (our country) in some shape or form. This kind of answer was unlike most college students I knew in the US, who worked for their own future success and accolades.
This selfless conviction to pursue successful careers resonated with my 1.5-generation immigrant experience. I could relate to these students in a way: Growing up, I wanted to have a prosperous career not only for myself, but also for my parents who sacrificed and worked so hard for me and my siblings. It is the idea that you are an inseparable part of a community, where your success and happiness is theirs and vice versa. For me, that community was my family, and for the north Koreans I met, that community was their entire country.
Another example of north Korea’s nationalistic devotion was shown through construction work. When we met with many women leaders at the Socialist Youth League Central Hall, we learned that much of the building and road construction was completed by young people in their 20s and 30s from numerous Youth Leagues around the country. In fact, when we were driving in our group van, our college student translator pointed out to me that the new apartment building near our hotel was one of the construction sites she volunteered at. Although professional construction workers do exist, about a third of most youth league members volunteer their time to help with construction after work or class. There is a cultural value placed upon “building our nation with our two hands.” It is considered an honorable duty to be part of this collective effort. It seemed as though being part of the building process of their country allowed north Koreans to feel connected to the advancement of their nation. It was refreshingly different to see the positive side of this collectiveness that has been narrowly depicted in the US and the ROK as coercive and robotic.
I contemplated where this nationalistic fervor came from. I wondered whether such devotion was rooted in the painful history of Japanese occupation. Many Koreans survived the excruciating and dehumanizing experience of colonization prior to the 1945 liberation. As a result, I could certainly understand why they would have an undeniable conviction and commitment to prevent foreign powers from occupying Korea again.
One of the speakers we met was an unconverted prisoner of war, Gong Soon Rhee, who was convicted of violating south Korea’s National Security Law. Mr. Rhee was born in the ROK and witnessed many cultural “offenses” inflicted by the US military during the war. Despite people’s struggle for basic needs, what was more unbearable for him to see were the racist and superior dynamics of the US military luring poor Koreans. Mr. Rhee stated, “We could not live freely with foreign power in our land.” He believed that to unify and build an independent Korea, the US military had to leave the country. By voicing anti-US sentiment, Mr. Rhee was assumed to be siding with “communism” and he was imprisoned in south Korea for 33 years. He left us with a message to take back to the States, “We (Koreans) have never bombed or set a foot in the U.S and shot anyone over there, so leave Korea alone. I wish for the U.S. to live their lives and for them to let us live our own.”
Certainly, there is more political and historical context to consider in this story. But what I slowly began to grasp was why the leadership of Kim Il Sung meant a great deal to people like Mr. Rhee. During the post-colonization period of building national pride, Mr. Rhee expressed that Kim Il Sung was the only trustworthy leader who wanted to rebuild Korea without the imposition of the US imperialists. What I gathered from this story was not whether Kim Il Sung was a good or a bad leader, but rather that Kim Il Sung represented hope for the future of an independent Korea, one free from foreign involvement. The dominant US and ROK narrative that I was exposed to in the past was that Kim Il Sung brainwashed north Koreans to worship him. This view dismissed the north Korean people’s own sense of agency that motivated them to follow Kim Il Sung.
As much as I gained answers, I realized I had more questions. I grew up learning that the US soldiers were in the ROK to protect south Koreans from the “bad communists.” However, I was becoming unsure of the altruistic nature of the US military bases in south Korea as the trip went on. For example, I wondered what were the political, economical, and military motives of the US in maintaining military bases in the ROK for over 60 years? Moreover, how does US military presence in south Korea affect the ways in which various reunification efforts unfold?
Another topic that surfaced during this trip was the religiously intense reverence north Koreans have for the three Kim leaders (Kim Il Sung, Kim Jung Il, and Kim Jung Eun). As the days went on, I was growing uneasy and feeling overwhelmed by the omnipresence of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il’s portraits everywhere we went. When I envision a reunited Korea, I wonder how north Koreans’ loyalty to and reverence for their leaders will be received by south Koreans and oversea Koreans, who either detest or feel indifferent toward these figures. More importantly, how will this difference be negotiated?
The time we spent with our guides and translators learning north Korean songs in car rides, playing drinking games, sharing heart to heart conversations, and singing off-tune in noraebang (Korean Karaoke) seemed to have passed by too quickly. As we approached the end of our stay in north Korea, it hit me that I was feeling anxious and sad about parting with our guides and translators. This feeling was the least expected part of the trip. Never did I imagine that I would grow a strong sense of jung (bond/love) with these people I was with for a short amount of time. They resembled my aunt, sister, and cousins. I could easily mistake their familiar faces for my own family, yet the reality that we were supposed to be enemies further complicated my desire to see them again one day. A sense of grief and sadness overwhelmed me when I realized the contradiction between this political division and my emotional attachment.
Furthermore, this paradox of feeling close to people who I was supposed to dislike became more apparent when I realized that many Koreans of my generation feel apathetic towards reunification of the Koreas. For most north Koreans we met, the issue of reunification was very close to their hearts and something they deeply yearned for. This difference in reunification interest between north Koreans and non-north Koreans (south Koreans and Koreans overseas) will affect how reunification takes route. As the younger generations of Korean Americans continue to reap the benefits of the work our older generations have put forth, I think it is important to take responsibility of our privileged lives by learning and challenging our histories that directly (or indirectly) shape our Korean diasporic identities.
Reunification will require many things, but on a personal level, I learned that it asks us to listen, empathize, and be vulnerably honest about our histories and experiences. I realized that a small gesture I can take towards the reunification effort is to start envisioning, actively thinking, and talking about Korea as one nation that is temporarily divided into northern and southern parts. Through my intentional use of language, specifically using lower-case ‘n’ to spell north Korea, I hope to articulate in a small way that Korea is one. Korean reunification is our, Korean diasporic, issue. It is our history and our future too.
Additional Photos from north Korea
Rej Joo is a 1.5 generation Korean American currently residing in New York City. He recently graduated with an MPH working in the field of Public Health. He enjoys practicing Hapkido and has two tortoises named Lo and Ralphie.