By Diana Marie Linton
A little over a year ago I had been studying in Japan and had decided to start learning Korean and Korean history when I returned for another academic year in America. At that time I had often talked about getting involved in North Korean issues because I was close to the Korean community in Japan and had heard about North Korean children who continue to suffer from the famines of the previous decades and from the uninterrupted lack of food. I had studied with a few students from South Korea during that time and I was surprised that I had more interest in human rights issues in North Korea. Because I had grown up in Los Angeles, I was very accustomed to the large Korean-American community in my neighborhood, and they had given me the impression of a very strong ethnic identity that to me would imply, if not a connection, a concern for the state of human rights in North Korea. After inquiring into the differences between the students that I had encountered in Japan and the Korean-American community I knew in America, it seems that South Koreans are more concerned with getting by – their children have to go to school, they have to pay for their daily expenses – unification would suggest an increase in taxes and economic burdens. So the issue of human rights in North Korea does not receive so much attention in everyday life and when it does it is often the same story.
By Jay McNair
I work in the Resettlement Support Division of the MOU; our department oversees various aspects of integration of North Koreans into South Korean society, including supervising the resettlement centers, monitoring North Koreans as they integrate, and deciding whether refugees with criminal backgrounds are entitled to citizenship or not. Obviously the work is very important, and the vibe in our division is quite busy and serious. Arthur (another intern in my department) and I joke that everyone is too busy to talk to us, but it’s kind of true. The phones ring constantly. Other workers in the MOU, when we share what department we’re working with, say, “Ah, the Resettlement Support Division. Very busy there, right?”
By Jay McNair
My cubicle’s next-door neighbor was just about to light a piece of mugwort on fire on the supposed chi-blockage above my right elbow when the office higher-ups flooded back in to the office. My acupuncturist saw them coming first; worry flashed across his face like a summer storm, and we moved hurriedly to stow the contraband. We swept the bag of mugwort back behind the books, pocketed the lighter, and returned casually to our desks, as if we had barely noticed the return of Those With Power—as if we had nothing to hide.
It was funny—though at the time I deeply resented the return of authority—because the loss of our acupuncture lesson was trivial to our futures, even for my career-ensconced office-mate. We stood to lose very little, and anyway our bosses are friendly people. But go fifty miles north from our Seoul desks, into North Korea, and the threat posed by those with power is no longer a small matter. The cards are sometimes similarly trivial—the unauthorized sharing of knowledge, as we were doing, for instance—but the stakes there are imprisonment or death. Citizens of North Korea have everything to hide.
Here, however, we are free to share knowledge as we wish. It is our goal! So, for me, these articles will attempt to offer glimpses into a country and a situation that is, for most of us, very difficult to learn about.
We are in Ansan, about an hour and a half’s commute south of Seoul by subway. It is suburban, leafy. The rainy season has broken for a few days and we have sun for the first time in weeks.
My mentor is driving us around in his minivan on one of our countless errands. He is, essentially, a fixer for refugees—he is in charge of a flock of fifty or so at a time, and helps them fill out all the paperwork they need to get bank accounts, cheap hospital visits, identification and registration at the local offices, etc. Helps them find dentists who will work with them to fix their teeth; helps them smoke cockroaches out of the public housing apartments they are moving into; helps them find used furniture stores and bargain with the shopkeepers. I wish I had a fixer like him. I think this time we are going to the hospital.
He has two cell phones, one a Samsung Galaxy S2 (his personal phone) and the other an iPhone 4 (this one just for the numbers of refugees). He takes both of them everywhere he goes, usually stacked one on top of the other. One rings and he holds them both up to his ear, stacked. Or, if they both ring, he double-fists them. He is crazy.