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.
Therefore after all of my questions and all of my observations, I still wondered what in the world is actually going on in North Korea and what I could do to get a better understanding of the real situation on the Korean peninsula and to get involved in volunteer programs. Therefore, when I received information about the internship through the Ministry of Unification, I applied hoping to speak to other South Korean students and to meet North Korean defectors directly. I am glad that I participated in the internship, especially having been able to meet with North Korean defector middle and high school students at Hangyeore. However, I did not know enough Korean to communicate with the people I met at each stage of the internship and it was very difficult for me because I wanted to be more useful. I did not have any idea of what we were doing during the march for unification and peace of the first week of the internship. I could not do anything more than search for English articles at the main office during the second week, and I did not really know what I was learning other than patience and a greater reliance on observation alone during the last two weeks at Hangyeore.
Despite all of the confusion, I do feel that the time I spent at Hangyeore made my experience in the internship. Not having the necessary vocabulary to communicate, I could only listen – sometimes I could hear – could always feel and see – I would like to think that I could see some things without my eyes. What I noticed – my mentee was much younger spiritually than I thought he would be. With all of the stories of the difficulties that the children endured to get to South Korea, I had made the assumption that he would be more mature. To my surprise he was more of a young boy than my own little brother, making him dear to me despite all of his constant insults and mood swings. Some of the other students also had moments of quiet – moments when they would suddenly disappear without a word. Again, I had no idea if this was because they are adolescents or because of anything else they might be feeling having moved from their homes in North Korea to a new environment in South Korea.
I do not know what the students received from my presence alone. There is so much that I want to share with them that I really could not during those two weeks. If North Korea is as isolated as the media says, I can imagine that the students want to hear about the world and, more importantly, different perspectives of that world. I noticed that some of the students are very eager to learn about other cultures. They had a lot of questions, but it seemed that they did not know where to begin or else they knew I could not understand what they wanted to ask me. I think that the internship has left me with even more questions than I had before. For the next three months I will study Korean. Hopefully I will be able to return to Hangyeore before the end of the year to attempt to communicate with the students once again. I hope that both of us can share our stories.