Our second week at Mulmangcho was as rewarding as the first week. The best memories for me this week are definitely from the various kinds of activities we did with the students. We made burgers for the students and ate them together, we decorated the students’ dorm, and we played games together (including a spicy ramen challenge). One activity that I enjoyed was the science activity class, in which my group – Ana, my student S, and I – with the help of MinSuk, made a model plane together! It was so much fun and also helped us connect with the students more as we need to figure out how to put the parts together, to share out the work, and to cooperate with one another. We felt very closely bonded as we successfully finished the model plane and shared the joy with each other. To me, since the last time I made a model plane was probably in elementary or middle school, it was also a great experience to revive some childhood memories.
Another activity that I enjoyed was the music class. The DESK 16 people were divided into small groups to teach songs to kids of different ages. Cole, Annie, and I teach the four older kids. We are going to have a talent show next Wednesday, in which both the four kids we teach and us three will perform a song. In our class, we decided to teach the students “I have a dream” by Westlife, but we have encountered some difficulties. The youngest of the four students could not read English as well as the other three, and when we asked them to read the lyrics together, he would sometimes be silent or talk to other students or simply leave the room. When Cole suggested ask other students to teach him the words, I was at first quite doubtful. Because in Jiguchon, if we were not leading the class or not actively engaging the students into music related activities, most of them would not learn at all. Yet since we also needed time to learn our own song that we will perform in the talent show, I agreed on Cole’s suggestion and told them to teach each other the lyrics for thirty minutes. At first, they were just standing at the back of the classroom, doing nothing. But soon after, the only girl in the group started reading the lyrics. S also started playing the song from the music app on his phone and began singing along with it. He shared his headphones with the youngest student, and if the latter had any words that he didn’t understand, S would patiently explain to him. After thirty minutes, we asked them to read the lyrics out loud together again, and all of them read fairly fluently in unison. I was greatly impressed by their diligence and their help for one another. I was reminded that these students have admirable traits and great potential, and because of this, I believe that they will have a bright and promising future.
As Michelle said, week two was just as rewarding as the first week, and it has been so nice to get to know the kids a bit more. This week we’ve had more of a chance to play around with the kids more during their down time in the dorms and again during scheduled recreation time, and it has been wonderful. From tickle fights and shoulder rides, to board games and Mafia (a heads up 7 up -like game that’s popular at summer camps and the like), we really enjoyed ourselves with the kids. During this time, I also noticed that once the younger kids got comfortable with us, they were very eager for physical contact, and often jumped into our laps while waiting for instructions, or lay on the floor to cuddle. Following this were a realization that these kids are not getting physical contact from just about anywhere, and a reminder of how important physical contact is for kids. They only get to see their parents maybe once every week or two – tops – most less than that and some not at all, and the only other adults in their lives are the teachers at the school, who try to keep a fairly professional physical distance from their students. We talked about this as a group a little bit and agreed to be cognizant about giving the kids as much physical support as they needed.
Besides the kids, this week was mostly defined for me by our meetings with two more refugees and a professor. The first refugee was a POW who was in his 80s but very chipper. He had a very different attitude about his time in North Korea than any other refugee we’ve talked to yet. He talked about it all very matter-of-factly, and seemed more outraged by the immorality and the lack of logic that he found in the events that transpired than the actual hardship that he underwent. He did not focus on how difficult it was or how terrible the situation there was, but instead on how he at the time could not understand why they wouldn’t let him leave if he just wanted to go home, and the fact that all of the POWs got sick and had trouble completing the work they were assigned because they were underfed. His talk was none the less very stirring, and when he finished gave an enthusiastic “Thank you!!” accompanied by a salute, and strode out of the room.
The second refugee had been an actress of some renown in North Korea, and pretty well of otherwise – her family had even owned their own factory before the war began – but fell on hard times when the bombing of Pyongyang started, and was forced to move to Kaesong to survive. She went a good art school, and when Kim Il Sung came to visit the school he commended her acting and recommended her for acceptance to a performance school, where she got her degree. She spoke more highly of Kim Il Sung than any of the other refugees that we had talked to and said that life was alright under his rule, and that she felt that the real dictatorship began with Kim Jong Il (who apparently was rumored to have killed his father, although she didn’t lend the rumor much credence). Kim Jong Il, she spoke very lowly of, especially of the fact that he took many women from their families to be his wives, even married women whom he fancied. Regardless of everyday life being livable under the first Kim, she gravely lamented the fact that none of the Kims allowed Christianity in the country, which caused her family a lot of hardship. She was a very expressive and emotional speaker, and it was the most powerful talk I had seen thus far. I had not realized the extent to which Christians were persecuted by the government in North Korea, but the stories she told were harrowing. Eventually she married a man who had family in China so that she could visit them in order to be able to practice her religion more freely. On her way back she left some bibles with a few families living near the border with a promise to come back and compensate them. When she returned to fulfill this wish, she found that one of the families had been taken by the party and most likely killed for holding the bible for her. She also told us about her mother, who kept the family’s faith strong, even when it was dangerous, until her dying breath. At this point she tearfully sang for us the hymn that her mother had sung on her deathbed with the family gathered ‘round, the tune of which I recognized to be Auld Lang Syne. While talking about the religious oppression in North Korea she compared the three Kims to an unholy Trinity, trying to wrest rightful power and glory from real Holy Trinity. She also confirmed a rumor that people ate their children during Kim Jong Il’s rule, and told us of workers who couldn’t even afford rice but came to work with meat in their lunchboxes every day.
The other person that we had the privilege of interviewing was Professor Jae Cheon Lim, an expert on North Korean issues, especially the North Korean government and economic entities. For lack of space in this already long post I’ll encourage you to read his quite fascinating work on your own (especially recommended are his papers on the North Korean patriarchal elite and Entrepreneurship in North Korea).
On Friday we took an excursion to the tomb of King Sejong, who created the Hangul alphabet, the Silleuksa temple, the birthplace of Empress Myeongseong, and a market/exhibition space of the famous Yeoju pottery and ceramics industry. At the Empress’ birthplace we also tried on some traditional Hanboks and took pictures.
P.s. In other news, the puppies opened their eyes this week!