Yesterday, I returned from a month long trip in Korea. I ate a chicken’s foot, avoided using the traditional Korean toilet (imagine a horizontal urinal built into the ground), went clam digging, survived the most humid summer in my life, and had my first beer. For a 21 year old college student in South Korea, all of this is the norm, a typical day. For a foreigner like myself, this even approaches “Weird/interesting Travel Experiences.” But there was one detail about my month that made it out of the ordinary—I experienced it all with North Korean defectors.
In a way, I felt I could relate to those refugees. We came from the same ancestors, from the same land, but now were foreigners in South Korea. We both spoke funny Korean (me from simply not knowing, them because of their distinctive accents). We both grewup with Korean traditions and customs, but a little modified so that we were relearning them now in South Korea. We tried things normal South Koreans do every day but we ourselves had never done in our home countries. We were so similar, but so very different, two opposite ends meeting at the origin.
I learned a lot about them, and I learned a lot from them. I learned that generally, North Koreans don’t like candy or sweet snacks, or anything else they couldn’t eat much of before, such as meat. I learned that the women are good singers and the men are good drinkers. I learned about their views on America and their leader pre-escape. I learned not to ask about their background stories or their families.
What I learned from them was that none of these things, though generally true, actually define their people; that as much as we, as foreigners viewing this secretive nation, want to box them in with their border, they are individuals. I met defectors who liked sweets and those who didn’t drink at all, those who wanted to visit America more than anything and those who hated hearing us speak English. Some were selfish, defaulting on survival mode, but more often than not, the others were selfless, offering us food, seats, their stories. Some were quiet and reserved, others were outspoken and hilarious. I learned pottery from one, and about Kim Il Sung from another. From many, I learned nothing. In their diversity, I learned that we as a people of the world are all the same.
This makes me simultaneously hopeful and fearful about unification. Hopeful, because they’re not the brainwashed robots I had thought them to be. I learned from the defectors that the people of the DPRK are aware something is not right despite their enforced ignorance of the outside world, and it makes me think that they won’t oppose unification. I am fearful, not because of the way they think, but because of the way we think. We, America. We, South Korea. We, the rest of the world that is not North Korea.
I can’t speak for South Korea because it is not my country. I can’t even speak for the US, which is my country. All I can say is that we are connected—as people, for Americans and as sisters, for Koreans. Two countries meeting in the middle. There are many ways to prepare for unification, but the first and most important one is perspective.