With North Korea, one of the five remaining Communist countries in the world, at its border, South Koreans have developed a particularly sensitive attitude towards anything that evokes the idea of Communism. I grew up in a typically conservative South Korean household in which family dinners oftentimes ended with “no-Communist-activities” preaches from my grandfather. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, my grandfather joined the South Korean army with one of his three older brothers as a teenage soldier. The other two brothers remained in their hometown of Gaesung with their parents. In 1953, the two Koreas finally decided on a long-term truce. It was then that my grandfather realized that Gaesung, previously part of South Korea, had become part of North Korea. But nobody was allowed to visit or even communicate with people on the other side of the border. There was no way my grandfather could see his family in Gaesung again.
Forty years later, after becoming a successful businessman, he finally found a way to contact his family in North Korea. His Canadian friend, while visiting Gaesung, searched for my grandfather’s family’s whereabouts. What he found out was that both of my grandfather’s parents had passed away years ago, but also that his second older brother was alive, still living in Gaesung. So my grandfather wrote a long letter on crisp white paper and sent it to his friend in Canada who in turn handed the letter to a string of brokers who knew how to sneak letters into North Korea. A hundred-dollar bill, hidden inside a film canister, was sent alongside to aid the desperate livelihood of his relatives. Six months later, a letter from Gaesung arrived at my grandfather’s home.
The letter seemed to have traveled time instead of distance. The paper was old, yellow, and worn on the edges, like the kind that gets displayed in a museum. Some of the words that my great-uncle used were the kind that I only saw in old and outdated books. When my grandfather showed the letter to me, I made sure the grease from that day’s dinner was off of my fingers, so as to not smudge any of the letters.
Reading the letter from a family member that I have never seen, or would never likely see, made North Korea seem even more distant. The letter’s content was plain and ordinary: greetings, news, and farewell. But the context of the letter was beyond bizarre. Gaesung was a two-hour drive away from Seoul, where all my family, including my grandfather, lived. Why did it have to take so long to get a letter from someone living two-hour drive away? In the letter, my great-uncle calmly grieved over their parents’ death and explained that he was taking good care of their graves. Did he sense that my grandfather would never be able to visit their graves in his lifetime? He also thanked my grandfather for the money that he sent, explaining how helpful it was for the family. But who knows how much of it was stolen by government officials instead of actually helping the family?
These questions screamed of the fundamental differences between South Korea and North Korea.
Perhaps that yawning gap between the two Koreas, ever so growing, is why my grandfather gave up all hope about reunification and stopped relating himself to North Korea any further. He firmly believed that ties with North Korea would become a burden on us, the family he built in South Korea. He would always remind us that no one in the family besides him should communicate with the family in North Korea. He said that because all North Koreans were brainwashed by the Communist regime, they only knew the concept of receiving and sharing instead of working hard on their own. His belief aligned with common stereotypes of North Korean defectors. Many South Koreans, including me, believed that North Korean defectors were ignorant, lazy, and different. And some viewed them as Communist spies who were ready to take over South Korea.
I, too, gradually stopped thinking about my North Korean and South Korean heritage. Even if it were not for my grandfather’s strong stance against North Korea, I think if I stayed in South Korea, I was bound to grow uninterested towards North Korea. Most of my peer groups in South Korea held an apathetic attitude towards news regarding North Korea. I think the apathetic attitude comes from various sources: The fact that the young generation does not have a direct connection with North Korea; a sense of defeat across generations that the two Koreas will never reunite; media that sometimes do not highlight issues related to North Korea; and the political atmosphere that tends to equate sympathy for North Koreans with sympathy for Communism.
Coming to college in the U.S. and living in a foreign country all by myself, far away from the family and friends that I was so used to, provided an environment for me to grow my very own perspective and voice. The U.S., unlike Korea, is an incredibly diverse place where my identity is sometimes solely represented by my cultural background. It became essential to understand how my culture influenced and shaped me to become who I am today. I began to rethink my family history and my roots. Given my grandfather’s painful family history, it made sense that he would view anything related to North Korea from a political and ideological standpoint. Left all alone as a teenager far away from home, he constantly had to work hard and study hard to stand on his own feet. As he became successful, the South Korean government preached to its people that North Korea was a devil, and that anti-Communist attitude and actions would make South Korea better and wealthier like the U.S.
From my grandfather’s perspective, all North Koreans were Communists that asked for more without working hard.
But taking courses on policies and human rights at Duke made me wonder how systems impact people and how people shape systems, and whether it was justifiable to lump a group of people into a category. Isn’t each and every North Korean, suffering under the cruel regime, also a human being?
One day, I stumbled upon what was called “North Korea: The pictures Kim Jong Un doesn’t want you to see,” a compilation of photos by photographer Eric Lafforgue that depicted simple everyday life activities of North Korean citizens. I was shocked to see photos of an official dozing, a man washing his hair in a river, students with loose shirts, soldiers napping on the grass, and so on. The photos that I was used to seeing, most likely carefully crafted and distributed by the North Korean government, always depicted people crying to reach out to their leader, uniformed officials looking stern and inhumane, and soldiers with guns marching in a robotic manner. Seeing the photos prompted me to view them as real human beings and look more into North Korean human rights issues. That is why I joined Vision for North Korea, a student organization at Duke that promotes North Korean human rights issues. Ever since, I participated in a conference on North Korean human rights that was held in Princeton, and researched on various topics related to North Korea, such as how North Korean regime used propaganda art to brainwash its people.
The last time my grandfather received a letter from North Korea, he received not just the letter but also a photograph. It was a picture of my grandfather’s niece, her husband, and her two daughters, all smiling in front of a sunlit background. The older daughter looked about my age, and the thought that it could easily have been me standing in her place gave me chills. Would I ever be able to view her merely as one of the devilish Communists? She who speaks Korean, who eats Korean food, who is a woman, daughter, sister, and friend to those important to her.
The ties between the two Koreas will always remain, and the separation of South Korea and North Korea is not an issue that ends with my generation. Unified or separated, North Korea will continue to affect generations of South Koreans to come. This is why I want not only myself, but also other young South Koreans, to view North Korea from a less political or ideological perspective and instead, to see them as human beings. In doing so, I hope that our generation will be more engaged with and discuss North Korean issues more openly.
Photo credit: Photo of a North Korean soldier by Roman Harak (left) and of a South Korean soldier by Chris Marchant (right) guarding the border at 38th parallel, which was established as the boundary between the Soviet and American occupation zones. Via Flickr.
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Elaine is a junior studying Public Policy at Duke. She was born in Texas, but grew up in South Korea. Her passion lies in filmmaking and art. She is a Vice President of a student filmmaking group on campus. Elaine is also actively involved with various organizations that promote diversity, intercultural communication, and storytelling, including International Association, Passport, and Vision for North Korea.