Freedom? Depends where you’re standing.

Part I: “Holding freedom in your hands”

We know from history that one person can build a community, influence society and  even change the world.  Whatʼs more, is that we can just as easily be challenged by one womanʼs life story.  This womanʼs life story suggests an alternate reality, one that  challenges the very way we understand and accept freedom.

Ms. Pak Soohyun* is one of four children in her fatherʼs second marriage.  Her father  was a South Korean man displaced and stranded in North Korea by the Korean War.   Unable to return to the South and unable to return to his family, her father began a new  life in North Korea.  Though born and raised in North Korea, Soohyun and her siblings were ostracized for being ʻSouth Koreanʼ.  Their success in North Korean society had  been pre-determined by their status as descendants of a South Korean man.   Regardless of her intelligence, talent or high achieving academic performance, Soohyun was able to neither receive a proper education nor obtain employment in the  government.  Their family lived under strict surveillance by the North Korean regime.

For Soohyun, her fatherʼs life was the very symbol of freedom and liberation that did not exist in North Korea.  Every night, her father sat gazing into the distant Southern sky,  wishing, hoping, and longing to return to South Korea.  It is her saddest memory of him.   He never made it back home.

It is under her father, a South Korean war captive, that Soohyun learned about a  different kind of life.  She too dreamed of a different kind of life until it finally happened.   But for North Koreans living in North Korea, the novel objects from China or Japan that they encounter are seen as symbols of freedom.  Their understanding of freedom is  limited to possessing and using the fancy toys and gadgets.  I was shocked to hear that freedom could be so easy and so simple.

Then, this freedom that Iʼm enjoying, is it what Soohyun had idealized while living in  North Korea?  The answer is no.  Her freedom was simple and based on the very  objects she could see.  My freedom is abstract and intangible.  For me, objectifying my ʻfreedomʻ is impossible but for the people in North Korea, all they want is to hold  freedom in their hands.  Or could it be that in their desperation, they want to hold onto something, anything…

* Pen name has been used in place of her real name for the safety of the interviewee


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