On the 27th of June, we left Hongdae and the convenience of city life, taking an hour and a half bus ride to Yeoju, one of the top rice producing areas in Korea. After we got off the bus, we took a taxi to the Mulmangcho school, which is 20 minutes away from the city of Yeoju. The school is surrounded by hills and rice fields, and it was a refreshing change of pace from crowded Hongdae area to peaceful and tranquil countryside. Founded in 2012, Mulmangcho school is an alternative school for North Korean refugee children. As a boarding school, the school currently has 16 students living in the dorms. Elementary to Middle school age students attend local public schools and return to Mulmangcho in the afternoon. However, High school age students remain at the school to study for the Korean GED test.
Here at Mulmangcho, we teach the older students in the morning since they are the only ones available. In the afternoon, we teach all 16 of the students doing art, music, science, sports, etc. Because there are only 6 students in the morning, most of the teaching happens 1 on 1 or 2 on 1. Personally, I am teaching a students with Cole as my partner. Because our student knows enough English to talk to us in English, we usually focus on her speaking ability and grammar.
I noticed that kids at Mulmangcho are all well-behaved. As I teach them, I can tell that they really want to learn from us. Although the boys horse around with each other, they look after the younger ones like they are their own brothers. Mulmangcho being a boarding school helps us in getting to know the students. The students are always around from breakfast to late at night. With the students here, I’ve played board games, played sports such as soccer, ping-pong, and badminton, took long walks around the school, and had late night snacks. Also, recreation classes that Mulmangcho headquarter planned for us were effective in getting us and the students closer.
Our time in Yeoju has also been a bonding time for us DESK 2016 members. Now that we can’t go exploring Seoul like we used to in Hongdae, we are always around each other. School cleaning time, which entails emptying the chicken coop and sweeping the gym, etc, has become a team building exercise. At Mulmangcho, every day has been rewarding.
Last thing I want to talk about is our discussion with a South Korean POW who was held captive in North Korea for 50 years. He talked about how he was forced to work at the coal mines for decades. Although coal miners is one of the highest paying jobs in North Korea as it takes toll on the body, according to the speaker, the NK government doesn’t actually pay the miners because of financial difficulty. When asked about his most difficult time in North Korea, he said that when his children were discriminated against at their schools because of his POW status, and when they blamed him for the difficulty that they faced, he felt horrible about himself. He added that his colleague actually killed hanged himself after his son blamed him for the POW stigma. While the speaker’s sons were not sent to the military because of the POW status, now that he is in South Korea, his grandchildren were drafted, being held hostage so that the speaker’s sons and daughters can’t leave North Korea.
My parents, like most parents whose kids are off doing something interesting without them, always want me to send them pictures. I usually never do, but I decided to upload two of my most aesthetically pleasing photos I took on our trip this week on our family group chat. It wasn’t until after I uploaded them that I had realized the picture above was included.
At first glance, it looks like any other serene day at the beach, with clear blue skies and towering mountains framing the ocean. It’s a beautiful picture, and let me tell you, it was even more unreal in person. My mom quickly responded with a couple of thumbs ups and,
“Where were you?”
Everything spiraled back to reality, and I understood again why at that time I couldn’t raise my arms up and let out a big sigh of satisfaction, like I would at any other place of commandingly beautiful scenery, why no matter how much I wanted to, there was probably no possible way in the near future that I could trudge through the sand and dip my toes into the crystal blue water.
Because if you zoom into the picture and look closely at the left side, you’ll realize that there’s a barbed wire fence blocking off the beach from the road. Not included in the picture, there was even more barbed wire just below where I was standing when I took this picture.
This is a photo of the easternmost point of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), taken from the Goseong Unification Observatory. The sprawling forest and the calm ocean waters laid out in the bottom half of the picture makes up only a very small fraction of the DMZ. Beyond that, see the mountains and small rocky islands in the background? That’s North Korea.
But of course, just by looking at this picture, you wouldn’t have known that. I didn’t know either until I asked the professors, who in turn asked the other professors that were touring us around, about where the divide was, where the DMZ ended and North Korea began. In fact, besides those mountains, I still can’t tell where the boundary really lies.
And that’s the truly sad part. That when I climbed up the stairs and something this breathtaking welcomed me, I could only view it as a political consequence. The first thing I did wasn’t to appreciate, but to segregate. I had forced myself to contain my enjoyment and instead mentally flip through the pages of the history that has divided the land I was viewing. It really isn’t fair.
At Panmunjeom, I didn’t feel this way because, well, the rigidity of it all so vividly illustrated for me how real the Korean War was. Because I was standing in such a political site, I so easily accepted the boundary between the North and the South that was in and of itself a political repercussion.
But did the Korean people deserve that? Did the nature in the picture above deserve that? How can you split something that’s been together for thousands of years because of three years of aggression between governments?
I still haven’t replied to my mom. Maybe I’ll tell her in a couple of days, or maybe never, but I do hope that unlike me, she has a chance to see the picture without all the historical filters blurring it.