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Posts Tagged ‘North Korea’

Wow. So many thoughts going on in my head right now.  Today was our every once and a while English speaker’s brunch on the US army base at church.  Mr. Lee and I were sitting with an American expat expat couple – meaning the husband works as a businessman for a multinational corporation, and they live a very American expat experience in terms of living in foreign national housing and sending their son to an international school.  The wife is now heavily involved in a North Korean defector program which helps to bring North Koreans to the South, resettle them, and advocate for their human rights.  In addition to tutoring a young defector in English, she is also involved in trying to make the organization an NGO which is causing some conflicts.  The original mission statement written in preparation for applying for NGO status was rejected by the Koreans involved in the process because, for legal, social, and safety reasons, it was too explicit in terms of defining and stating their actual role.  The Koreans’ position, and the legal advice given to my church friend by an American expat lawyer, is to be very vague in terms of the work they do – perhaps even omitting ‘North Korea’ from the statement altogether.  However, the Westerners (mostly American?) I think, were very much against vague statements.  Therefore, my friend was asking our opinion on the situation.

Mr. Lee, an American English university prof, and myself all agreed that from the Korean perspective, the vague statement was best.  Not only is it necessary from a legal perspective, but also because in these sorts of things Korean just is vague.  I read somewhere that English puts the responsibility for providing meaning on the speaker while Korean puts that responsibility on the listener.  I used to think that so much of my confusion in conversation with Koreans (especially those who are older or in positions of power) had to do with my low Korean ability, but I’ve come to realize that part of it is my inability to read between the lines and speakers’ propensity to make vague statements, especially when the topic requires sensitive treatment.  But in this specific situation with the North Korean group, I also told my friend that I understood the Westerners’ need to have something specific on paper.  With vague statements, it might seem to them that the group was unfocused, or worse yet, attempting to deceive in a malicious way.  In the end we concluded that when it comes to Westerners and Koreans working together, communication problems happen less because of a difference in actual language, but in the expectations each side has because of their linguistic and cultural views.  I advised my friend to go with the vague statement, but also to make sure that the Westerners were told why (culturally, not just legally), such a statement was needed, and to communicate this fact in a way Westerners would appreciate and trust.

My friend also discussed the difficulties in working on North Korean issues because many North Koreans themselves felt it was inappropriate for anyone but North Koreans to be involved in developing programs for defectors, and how many South Koreans reacted very negatively to her helping this middle school aged defector.  Together, we all discussed some of the history behind discrimination against defectors and how Americans could get involved in North Korean issues without angering North Koreans themselves.  It was a good and productive conversation…but it was also tiring.  Tiring because it was about trying to explain South Koreans to an American, trying to explain Americans to a South Korean, and trying to validate everyone’s perspective while bringing them into dialogue with one another.

In the same conversation, by friend mentioned that she was looking for non violent, non sexual, subtitled in Korean English movies for her North Korean student because she wanted to give her some fun things to study and be able to help her conversation skills by discussing the movies they watched together.  However, being an American expat couple, they didn’t have many subtitled movies.  Mr. Lee has over 700 movies, most including subtitles, so I offered to peruse our shelves and find something for her.  While doing so, Mr. Lee remembered that he had a movie called 우리학교 (Our School); the movie is about a school that was once sponsored by North Korea in Japan where ethnic Korean students (often North Korean passport holders) go to school in Japan.  He though my friend might like the movie because of her interest in North Korea.  Well, I was also intrigued by the movie, so I sat down and watched it this afternoon.  Before watching it, Mr. Lee cautioned me that it was important to focus on the sentiment behind the movie and understand that the film was the darling of netizens both because it showed the kind of school that rarely exists in South Korea these days, and also because the movie focused on jung, in this case, the underlying connection between people of Korean decent regardless of country.

So I watched it.  And then it ended.  And then I sat blankly looking at the screen trying to process all the different thoughts and emotions running through my head.  First off, even with my limited Korean skills, there is an obvious difference between the sentiment conveyed in Korean and the sentiment translated into English.  In the film, ‘Korea’ is often referred to as ‘Joseon’ which is the North Korean term for the whole of Korea, but an English speaker would have a very different emotion when reading the translated ‘Korea’.  The students also talk about Korea (North) and Korean as ‘our country’ and ‘our language’ which is the normal way South Koreans talk about their country and language, but when 3rd generation ethnic Koreans living in Japan use these phrases (and when they have North Korean passports), the English ‘Korea’ and ‘Koreans’ can’t really communicate the sentiment implicit in those phrases.  There were a lot of those kinds of linguistic gaps for me, so I wonder how many other things were there for native Korean speakers.

The film also dealt with the discrimination such groups face (difficulty entering Japanese universities if they are educated at Korean schools, inability to compete for school titles in sports, and protests against the existence of such schools), and interestingly enough, it dealt with the graduating class’ trip to ‘the Fatherland’ or North Korea and the students’ feelings of love toward North Korea after returning (exacerbated by protests from right-wing Japanese upon their return to Japan). 

Throughout the whole movie I was trying to understand everyone.  These Koreans in Japan – their grandparents and great grandparents were brought to Japan as labourers to do the lowest of the low work.  And then Japanese rule ends in Korea, but the Korean War breaks out, so nobody returns home.  After the War, North Korea is actually more prosperous for a time, so many of the Koreans in Japan choose North Korean citizenship and allegiance, and they were supported by North Korea at the same time they were being discriminated against by Japan.  So of course this new generation, who has had protests outside their school, and not been able to wear the traditional Korean hanbok at times because it might draw violence feel a connection to a country that is mythologized in the textbooks they use and folk songs they sing.  And then they go there and see the best of the best of Pyeongyang – of course they love North Korea. 

But then I also put myself in the shoes of the Japanese – not those who want to prevent children’s’ sports teams from competing on a regional or national level, or those who threaten violence or impose discriminatory policies, but those who might understandably be annoyed by a group of people who talk about ‘our people’ and ‘our language’ living in their midst when the North Korean government has kidnapped Japanese citizens and put the country at risk with missiles and nuclear tests.  And although the movie glosses over the ideological slant of the school, it’s pretty obvious that the school is very pro-North Korea.

And then I tried to understand how Koreans might feel connected to these people who, although they are interested in South Korea and unification, feel allegiance to the North.  There’s definitely a feeling of connection because it’s often easier to acknowledge a common enemy in Japan than to recognize the massive mindset differences between North and South at this point in history which will make reunification a monumental task if we ever make it to that point.  Of course, the movie really plays on the sentimentality of persecuted people of Korean ancestry trying to rediscover and keep alive Korean clothes, music, and dance even as those in the South are abandoning these aspects of culture.  So yeah, I get why this played well in the South.

But as a non-ethnic Korean who is part of a Korean family, the movie also upsets me because in the present day, bicultural Korean-____ children, especially those with a parent from Southeast Asia, face massive discrimination in Korea.  Here are children with a Korean family name, who were born and raised in Korea, and who speak perfect Korean who are considered other or lower or uncomfortable to be around because as ‘mixed’ people, Koreans can’t feel the same jung for them.  I wish people could watch the discrimination of ethnic Koreans abroad and also apply those feelings of rage to how non-ethnic Koreans are sometimes treated on Korean soil.

And then, because this is just how my brain works, I also had to think of how this movie might play to an American expat with an interest in North Korean defectors.  How, as part of a country with an ideal of people being able to belong to a country based on immigrating to a new land and settling there, she would have a hard time understanding how citizenship, belonging, and nation work in East Asia.  

And then my head nearly exploded with trying to not only understand but also harmonize all these very different perspectives.  Just yesterday I was sitting at Costco eating my post-Lent piece of cheese pizza and thinking (because I do most of my thinking in the middle of mundane tasks), of how my children were going to be blessed because they were going to be raised with three very distinct identities – Canadian, Korean, and Orthodox Christian.  At that moment, I was thinking that they would be blessed because their various perspectives would help them to be more tolerant and able to apply what they knew about harmonizing differences to other situations and contexts.  But now I’m also reminded that although in this modern and globalized a background in multiple perspectives is the future of our world, it’s also easier to just hold on to one identity.  It’s easier just to be a right-wing Japanese protestor confident in your assertion that life would be better without ethnic Koreans in your backyard.  It is easier for a ethnic Korean 3rd generation middle schooler to decide their identity is North Korean instead of a complex North Korean-ethnic Korean-Japanese resident identity.  And it would certainly have been easier for me to have stayed in small town Ontario, stayed mainstream Protestant, and married someone from the same background.  So much easier. 

In the end, I truly believe in the importance of diversity, the beauty of complexity, and the necessity of empathy.  Empathy is really a skill that modern people need to develop to help them to communicate, interact, and solve world problems, but it sure is hard sometimes.  It sure is hard.

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Like many others, I’ve been watching Al-Jazeera and CNN as often as possible because of the situation in Egypt. I’m enthralled by the human drama, the implications for the rest of the Arab world, and most importantly because my mum’s cousin A. lives and teaches in Cairo.

Growing up we didn’t see this group of cousins all the time, but they were closer than some of my own first cousins, and they played an integral part in the shaping of my identity. A’s sister J was the first to go overseas, and she has spent much of the last 25ish? years in South America. A, who is younger, followed in her sister’s footsteps and has lived in South America, Europe, the Middle East, and the Canadian North for long periods of time. Without them realizing it, these women showed me that living and working abroad as young women was a viable option in life, and when I was younger, the stories they shared fuelled my dreams about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to accomplish in my life. I remember how in about grade 3 I told my teacher I wanted to do a project on Colombia (the country J has spent much of her adult life in), and my teacher told me that I was confused. She said my cousin lived in British Columbia not Colombia. In our tiny village 22 years ago, my teacher couldn’t imagine that anyone from that area would actually go to Colombia to live and work. J showed me that it was possible.

So back to Egypt and A. For several days the Egyptian government cut off Internet access, so it was hard to get information about her. My mother, knowing what it’s like when a million people call you wondering if the sky is falling and if your daughter is facing eminent death from years of Western media coverage of North Korea, was reluctant to overreact and call her aunt to see if there was any news, but she was also deeply concerned. Finally A’s partner contacted me to say that he had talked to her via phone, and my mum learned from her aunt that A was staying put as her area was not under any imminent threat. More recently, A has been able to get back onto the Internet, and yesterday she finally posted that things are getting really rough and it’s time to start thinking about leaving. She is a well travelled and experienced woman who doesn’t scare easily, so when she says it’s time to get out, it’s time.

Of course, if you read the reader comments on Canadian news stories about Egypt, you’ll see the usual vile remarks about ‘Canadians of convenience’ (thinly veiled racist speak for non-white people born in other countries) who don’t deserve ‘our’ help because they are really fake Canadians who now just want ‘tax-paying Canadians’ to foot the air lift bill (despite reports to the contrary and the Canadian embassy’s own evacuation disclaimer…at least on the Embassy to Korea’s website:  “Individuals who receive evacuation assistance from the Government of Canada are required to pay for any travel beyond a safe haven. They must also repay the cost of evacuation as soon as possible upon their return to Canada.”). But I’ve also seen a lot of comments saying that any time a Canadian goes abroad to work, they should also be stripped of their citizenship because they have chosen to leave the ‘Promised Land.’ At the very least, these traitors of a sort do not deserve any help or assistance from the Canadian government. They made the choice to work for companies with offices abroad, so they should figure out their own way to get out…or so the argument goes. And I’ve also seen comments with the opinion that if you want to leave Canada for a honeymoon or a trip to see the pyramids, you get what you deserve.

I’ve been asked for years if I fear living in South Korea. I understand this sentiment. There are times when I have had to turn off CNN International (far different from CNN America in case you’ve never watched), because it is terrifying me. And sometimes people send me articles asking if we are actually moments away from being annihilated by NK, and I realize how much the international media tends to distort what actually happens here. After watching news reports, people assume we must be living under martial law – that everyone retreats nightly to a bomb shelter – and that at any second we could all be gone.

Honestly, it’s possible. Anything is possible. Egypt wasn’t ‘supposed’ to happen. Tunisia caught many people off guard. North Korea does have missiles pointed in the general direction of my neighbourhood. But…they haven’t launched anything into my neighbourhood for 60 years. Yes, our ship was bombed. Yes, our island was attacked, but the island is very very very close to the border and not at all Seoul itself. I’m also watching reports of what is happening in Queensland, Australia. A few weeks ago I watched Brisbane under water and wondered how my former coworker’s house was fairing. He left Seoul for the ‘good life’ back home in Australia. But you know what? Shit happens in the developed world too.

And lest those ignorant people commenting on the Egyptian situation in Canadian newspapers say that somehow being on Canadian soil protects people from disasters, I was talking to my friend R on Skype recently, and she told me that in her hometown of Winnipeg people were already worried about the Red River flooding in and epic way this spring after an unusually snowy winter. And how many people have died/been stuck in their cars on highways/faced troubles due to the multiple snowpocalypses or just regular snow storms this year in Central and Eastern North America?

When certain natural disasters happen, I’ve observed people shaking their heads and saying ‘I don’t understand why people keep living in San Francisco/New Orleans/the whole of the Caribbean/the Southern US, Winnipeg, Halifax. Those areas are so prone to earthquakes/hurricanes/tornadoes/flooding/storms of every kind. Why don’t those people just move to some place safer?’ Well, I’m not sure how safe any place is. My own hometown is just on the cusp of a tornado zone. We haven’t had a highly destructive one in 30 years, but 4 people died in the last one, multiple homes and barns were destroyed (my dad used to tell a story about finding a calf alive under rubble from a barn), and I went to school with a girl who survived even after being ripped from her mother’s arms and thrown a great distance. We’re also not that far from a snow belt. We are right by a major highway where deadly crashes and car pile ups happen regularly. And no, maybe Canada doesn’t have North Korea breathing down its back, but people are far more likely to die from gun injuries or be affected by drug addictions/overdoes than in Korea. So what constitutes ‘safe?’

South Korea might seem scary if you’ve never been here. Cairo might seem too exotic for those who haven’t done a lot of travelling, but they are generally safe places, and it’s a strange…exceptional event that makes them otherwise just as it takes an exceptional storm or an exceptional winter of snow to turn Queensland or Winnipeg into disaster zones. And it’s highly discouraging to learn that there are people who, when they hear of other people’s misfortunes or difficult times around the world, react with barely veiled racism and ignorance about how the world really works.

Yes, there is danger around the world, but there’s also danger at home, and as long as we are being prudent, our lives are so much fuller when we get out and experience all the beauty and diversity that this world has to offer. So, my prayers are for my cousin – that she will be able to find a flight out of the country that will take both her and her elderly cat. My prayers are for all those trying to get out – or trying to stay and work for a better life and meaningful change – my prayers are for all those around the world and back in Canada who are dealing with difficulties of the usual or exceptional variety. And I would hope that those who like to sneer at other’s misfortunes would learn how to refocus their energy in more positive ways…like living a little and seeing the world.

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“South Korea’s military will remain on full alert for a possible North Korean attack as tension grew Tuesday following the lighting up of a giant “Christmas tree” near the border with North Korea for the first time in seven years.

“The military plans to remain on high alert and prepare for an immediate counterattack until the risk of enemy provocations is substantially reduced,” Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said in a National Assembly session.

Kim noted that if the North, which regards religion as a security threat, launches an artillery attack against the Christmas tree, the South Korean military will wipe out the troops responsible for the shelling.”

Or so says the Korea Times which we all know is not the poster child for journalistic integrity and critical thinking in Korea.  However, let’s imagine for a minute that this is the case and that the North could really attack over a CHRISTMAS TREE.  On one hand, the North seems to be using everything these days as a justification for attacks (or threats of attacks – the ratio of threats to actual attacks is thankfully why we’ve seen general peace on this peninsula over the past 60 years).  But if there really is a chance North Korea could use this as a justification, wouldn’t it be prudent to take the freaking tree down?  Is the K-pop/festive spirit ‘propaganda’ war really so important that our government is going to risk innocent lives of our 19 year old conscript boys and villagers along the border?  Madness people.  Just because another country’s leaders act like immature assholes doesn’t mean we should act in kind.

UPDATE:  Here’s the Korea Herald’s version complete with a picture of the ‘tree.’  It’s nice to know that some of my fellow Christians are using the holiday for unnecessary provocation.  Peace on Earth and goodwill toward men indeed.

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Last night on the news I saw that there were going to be a series of drills going on today to test national preparedness in case of a NK attack.  This is nothing new.  We have siren tests every once and a while, and I think some schools do routine drills where children are taught to hide under desks or flee to another building.  However, this drill was billed as a somewhat more indepth than your average siren test because people were actually supposed to do something (like stop driving, run into a subway station, run for cover, practice flying fighter jets over the city, etc.)

Then, exactly 2 hours before the drill was about to begin, I received an email from the Canadian Embassy in Korea stating in part, “South Korea will hold a nationwide special civil emergency exercise today at 14:00 for 15 minutes. Sirens will sound, transport will be stopped and some people may be asked to take shelter in metro stations or basements. Aircraft may be heard overhead. There is no need to be alarmed.” 

I posted this passage on Facebook not because I thought I should alert others in case they were uninformed, but because I thought the wording was a bit humourous.  (As another friend remarked, “I chuckled at the wording at first, too, especially the “no need to be alarmed” part. Sending out an email two hours before, though, makes it feel like when the plumber comes to the office or something. ‘In a couple hours the plumber’s coming to look at the pipes, so you might hear some noise. It’ll only be like 15 minutes, though, so don’t worry about it.’”).  However, by the reaction of other friends both on and off line, it seems that many people needed to read my post because they really had no idea what was happening.  One friend, who is in fact Korean American and speaks Korean well, and who works in a company staffed primarily by Korean Americans, was in the middle of a meeting with her colleagues and they wondered if they should all run for cover. 

But the thing that is a bit disconcerting for me is that nobody (in any school I’ve ever worked for), has ever told me about any kind of contingency plan…for anything.  Weather…fire…violent student…NK attack.  I hope there’s a plan.  I hope that someone where I work has thought about a natural disaster or insane person or where to go in the highly unlikely event of bombs flying.  But I’ve never read, seen, or heard any such plan.  Even when we had a typhoon in the fall – when Mr. Lee called me to say that I should not go out under any circumstances because he had had a terrifying taxi ride where both he and the driver thought they would be hit by flying debris, early morning university classes were on as usual and teachers in our department were expected to show up as usual even though several subway lines had stopped running.  Thankfully the storm ended earlier than expected, but there was still a profound lack of communication and preparedness – or at least nobody communicated any kind of plan. 

When my sister was an exchange student in Hong Kong, a place with the highest level of typhoons, there was a well established system of what to do at each level, and even as a temporary resident she was well informed of what she had to do.  Obviously such storms are not the norm in Korea, and we haven’t had any school shootings (although my former gyno was actually held hostage by the ex of one of her coworkers a couple of years ago…how crazy is that?).  From friends who work at public and private schools as well as hogwans, the plans seem to differ wildly, although they all seem to be rather simplistic – do nothing, hide under your desk, go to the cafeteria, or, as one friend of a friend put it, “We all have to go and stand in another building. Brilliant plan- that will completely flummox the North Koreans.”  At our university, the head teacher – also Korean American who is fluent in Korean – ran into the office to ask if we should be doing anything to join in with the drill.  She was told that it was a self-led drill and we could run to the basement if we wanted to participate…or not.  It didn’t really inspire confidence that we have any real plan in place for unlikely but possible disasters. 

Now, I realize that many Koreans have probably done this drill a couple of times in their lives, and have a general idea of what they should do even if they aren’t certain about the specifics of the building they work/live in.  Therefore, they might not think that non-Koreans need to know that kind of information because we can follow others (or perhaps the more common problem is that everyone is so desensitized to threats that nobody takes it seriously).  However, even without a major attack by NK, there are numerous possible problems that could occur.  When I was 20 for instance, I was teaching a summer camp by myself, and we had to be relocated to a public school because our building was flooded.  One day, we had major tornado sightings near the school, and I had to bring the children in from the portable and sit in the hall with them until the warning had passed.  Since this was an area that was known for tornados, I myself had participated in many drills, and the school itself reminded me of what to do when we transferred the camp to their building, so when the (never really expected) event happened, it wasn’t such a big deal because I knew what I should do.  For another summer job, I worked for the Federal Government in youth employment, and we were based in a local office dealing with the employment needs of local adults.  One of the very first things the local manager did was show us the panic button in our office in case we had an irate client, and part of our manual, which our federal manager quizzed us on, was about what to do in case of an emergency. It wasn’t scare mongering – it wasn’t something anyone dwelt on – it was just treated as one more thing on the list of things new employees should know as part of orientation.  

Perhaps new Korean employees are taught these things – or at least briefly reminded at meetings every now and then – but that still doesn’t mean that non-Korean employees – even those who have the Korean capabilities to hear such things in passing – know anything about these measures.  I suppose you could argue that we aren’t really that important and everyone will probably follow some kind of hoard if anything happened – but a great many of us are teaching the children of the nation.  Yes, some are in public schools which did seem to have at least a half-assed drill today – but many are in hogwans where they are told nothing.  And even though I am a university instructor with students who can hopefully take some initiative themselves, I do feel a responsibility for my students.  I think I’m quite mum-like in that way.  At the beginning of the semester I’m one of those people who takes note of the classrooms I’m in – the emergency exits, the location of the fire extinguisher, the easy way, if any, from the window sill to the ground.  I don’t dwell too long on these thoughts, but I do think it’s important to be aware – because it’s not like you ever expect something crazy like an irate student brandishing a knife bursting in your classroom.

I guess the point of this post is a bit messy – but basically, I’m not so sure that many companies, schools, and individuals have really good detailed plans of what to do in the event of a NK attack…or any other kind of disaster.  But…we should.  And especially those teaching children or in a teaching position – which is much more about leadership here than in Canada – should be well prepared to lead our charges in the (we hope and pray), unlikely event of a disaster.

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