As of today, our group has spent one crazy, eventful week in South Korea. While we’ve only been here for a short time, we’ve already begun to feel our group come together, bonding as we take in the sights and sounds (and delicious foods!) of Seoul (서울), the nation’s capital.
We arrived at various times last Sunday, tired but excited to settle into our new home. For that day and the next several days, our common experience could be summed up in one word: jet lag. Even though Sunday was my 20th birthday, I could hardly keep my eyes open and crashed facedown on my bed a few hours after we arrived at our guesthouse. Luckily, my unintended nap paid off – I was thoroughly surprised when my group woke me up with a beautiful cake and birthday candles!
On Monday, we spent some time getting to know Hongdae (홍대), the vibrant college town area that will be our home for the next few weeks. We were amazed by the sheer number of shops and restaurants, many of which our wonderful professor assured us are “quite famous”. Later that evening, we traveled by subway to another part of Seoul for a delicious KFC (Korean Fried Chicken) dinner.
The next day, we headed by subway and bus to a mountainous area at the edge of the city to begin our retreat at the South Korean government’s Institute for Unification Education. Over the course of four days, we would receive lectures from government officials and professors on North and South Korean issues and take field trips to various destinations important to the history of these two countries. Perhaps our most noteworthy excursion was Wednesday’s trip to Panmunjeom (판문점), the “Joint Security Area.” This is the most heavily guarded portion of the DMZ, or demilitarized zone, between North and South Korea. With guards from both countries stationed at this border area, often looking directly at one another, Panmunjeom is emblematic of the struggle between North and South Korea, which have been in an uneasy ceasefire for over sixty years.
While we were grateful for the opportunity to visit Panmunjeom, we were unsettled by the almost careless ease with which several of its visitors approached it. Many people happily took selfie photos with the South Korean soldiers standing guard and seemed to view the area almost as a common tourist attraction. According to our South Korean military tour guide, the area receives about 600 visitors each day. The flippancy with which people treat this very serious place reflects a more general attitude about this issue in general – rather than seeing North and South Korean relations as a very serious issue affecting millions of individuals, the international community often dismisses North Korea as the “crazy hermit kingdom,” something backwards and silly. Remember The Interview? You get the gist of it. Part of my goal for this summer is to humanize this issue for myself, to see the people beyond the regimes, power, and politics. I want to understand the complex and often overwhelming problems between these two counties on an individual basis and maybe, in this way, come to understand the whole.
Going into this program, my knowledge on the relationships between North and South Korea were very basic. The course I took last semester definitely helped, but the lectures on Thursday illuminated parts of the issue that the books and readings just couldn’t have. The first lecture was on the relationships and strategies that China, Japan, America, and Russia have had in the past with South and North Korea. The presenter was very organized and the information was well-structured. It was very interesting to learn about the different policies and exact events that have constructed the current political landscape in North East Asia. The presenter also went over the benefits these countries would gain from a unified Korea (big surprise).
We also were able to talk to a North Korean kindergarten teacher refugee who arrived in South Korea 8 years ago, and was currently a graduate student at Yonsei University. The two hour Q&A session went by very fast; our group had a lot of questions that I found very interesting and enlightening. Hearing about NK propaganda and brainwashing from second-hand sources is one thing, but hearing it directly from a refugee was especially impactful. While some stories such as her believing and teaching her students that Kim Jong-Il could fly on top of tree leaves may have seemed amusing at the surface, the actual impact and seriousness of a statement like that is very real. The only thing that took away from the session was that there was a government official with her making it harder to determine whether her answers were being filtered. The final session of the day was with a chipper woman who seemed determined to not let the translator get out a full sentence. This session seemed by far the most propaganda-y, declaring several times that “Unification is a jackpot!” and finding new ways to declare that South Korea was better and more legitimate than the North. Even a cute puppy video during the break time was unable to shake this insincere feeling from the whole presentation.
During our weekly discussion we were able to process a lot of this information. We discussed some of the inconsistencies we had noticed during the lectures, and postulated the different motives that South Korea had behind pushing the process of Unification so strongly, almost to the point of not even discussing with us other alternatives. Overall our time at the Unification center was… interesting to say the least. While at many times the information that was presented conflicted with the things we learned in class, it was interesting to receive the South Korean government’s stance on this very critical issue.
On Friday, we headed to Hanawon, a school for North Korean refugees that provides resettlement education, which is very necessary for many refugees. After attending the 3 month program at Hanawon, the refugees are settled into any city of their choosing and receive assistance from the government with housing and finances to ease their transition into South Korean society. The school was actually very beautiful and had good resources, even a psychiatric center, something that I would have thought not possible budget-wise for such a small-scale school (only around 400 students are at Hanawon at a time). The experience at Hanawon definitely eased any of my worries about the South Korean government forcibly or abrasively trying to assimilate North Koreans into their culture. Our talk with a North Korean refugee reinforced this sentiment: she seemed to be very grateful for her time at Hanawon and even opted to return for Chinese education.