MOU Overseas Correspondents’ Program: An Afterthought

Certain moments in life come few and far between. Standing in the heartland of Seoul on my last day in Korea, I wasn’t thinking how an internship at the Ministry of Unification (MOU) was going to revolutionize my life. Rather, I kept contemplating whether I would be able to continue the life journey that had brought me there to begin with.

I, Faizaa Fatima, hail from Dhaka, Bangladesh— a minuscule developing nation of 150 million people but a land of immense dreams nonetheless. As a child, I was told that one first needed passion in order to work towards a goal; and time and again, I have felt the truth in those words. The tale of North and South Korea had always been something I could very well relate to, especially as a Bangladeshi born to ancestors who had experienced the India-Pakistan Partition, the vestiges Bangladesh’s war for liberation in 1971 and the struggle between the Hutus and Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide.

Consequently, I was raised with an awareness of the issues surrounding the Korean Peninsula, which I eventually carried on to my college career. I started learning Korean during my sophomore year and spent part of my last summer studying Korean at Ewha University. Thence emerged my desire to work on human rights issues in the Northern counterpart, which eventually led to my internship at MOU, the reason being my belief that unification is not a national concern, but a global responsibility. Unification simply cannot happen through concerted efforts of the Korean government, but the global community needs to have a stake in it as well.

Speaking of my experience with the Ministry, sometimes, we do not necessarily have to undergo life-changing moments for an experience to indeed be memorable, and, similarly, my stint at the MOU was one of them. The week-long Unification Leaders Camp held in China taught me to adopt a historical approach to the process of unification, which I may previously have been loath to consider. The Unification Education session opened my eyes to unique perspectives that I nevertheless disagreed with, but learned to appreciate all the same. Last but not least, the mentees at Hangyeore Middle and High School completely redefined my perceptions of bravery, perseverance and steadfastness in the quest for their rights in the new homeland. Meeting contemporaries who had made some of the most difficult decisions of their lives and braved all odds for their dreams was a most humbling experience. From the desire to ensure their rights did unification eventually blossom into a personal objective.

Whether or not I theoretically championed unification as a cause was of little concern. It resonated with me that I was no longer vying for the rights of nameless, faceless entities and it mattered that we were all united in resolving the personal anecdotes and claiming for them the rights to life that they rightfully deserve. If unification were the means to achieve all of that, then so be it. While I rightfully acknowledge the economic and politico-security gains a peaceful unification would bring, it matters more that we are able to guarantee sufficient state support programs in the process unto whom the unification is geared for, and debunk the speculations of subpar defector policies as well.

As I entered the minuscule waiting room of the Central Government Complex on June 28th, with much well-placed trepidation, little did I know that I was going to learn as much from my fellow correspondents and others in the program as I did from the scheduled program itself; and for that I am truly grateful. Here forth, I pledge to do justice to the experience, passion and feelings wrought upon me thanks to the Overseas Correspondent Program, render words to the tales of unification, and bring those accounts to life in the process. Unification is as much as a personal responsibility as it is a global one; and, equipped with the agency to express my take on unification, I am looking to do my small part in disseminating a heightened sensitivity on the matter.

Paul Kelly and the Messengers might have been talking about the Indigenous Australians’ battle for land rights and reconciliation when they recorded “From Little Things Big Things Grow” in 1991. More than two decades later, the same can be reiterated for the cause of unification: most big things have small beginnings, and that is exactly why my, and your efforts towards unification can indeed make a difference.

We’re now one step closer to unification than we were yesterday.

“From Little Things Big Things Grow”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_tHEGo-g3mw

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Extremely Repugnant, Yet Disturbingly Familiar

When people asked me what the most memorable experience of my summer internship as a Ministry of Unification overseas correspondent was, I found it quite difficult to choose one particular portion of the program. During the 6-week program, we had an opportunity to participate in various activities that started with traveling across the border regions of China and North Korea to volunteering to teach English at Hangyeore School, a specialized middle and high school for North Korean defectors. In retrospect, each component of the program had its own merit, but really it was the internship experience in its entirety that enabled me to renew my enthusiasm for the issues of Korean unification and supporting North Korean defectors. In that sense, making the UCC video geared to promote the issue of unification was a befitting close to our summer.

Initially, many of us were dreading this final project, which seemed to be a daunting technical endeavor at the time. Since very few of us had any experience with video production, we were convinced that we had no capacity to produce a substantial output. However, as our group brainstormed ideas regarding the information and sentiment that we wanted to depict in our video, it became clear to us that we came up with a meaningful product that could serve as a reality-check to the public, especially the younger generation of South Korea.

When we were viewing the final clip as a group, I was suddenly struck with a mixture of emotions that made me uneasy.

“Why Should I care?”

The two girls in the ending scene differed in every possible way in appearance, but somehow their dull, detached faces mouthing the same words made them seem strikingly similar. Besides the horror of watching myself on video, something about the image that was portrayed in the video was strangely disturbing yet familiar to me.  I have seen those faces and heard those comments all around me. At one point, I was also that person staring blankly into someone’s eyes when asked about unification. Is this really what the Korean youth has come to become? How do we maintain the social drive needed for national unification when the generations that will soon lead our society simply just don’t care?

It is clear that we as a nation have an immense task ahead of us: the task of presenting a message for unification that does not solely rely on the sympathy for “our people” suffering above the 38th parallel, but one that is distinct from the past in that even younger generations with absolutely no connection to the North can agree upon.

*The UCC video of MOU overseas correspondents can be viewed from the following address:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LL2jrKLbOTY

Beyond the Summer

Washington, D.C is best known for its historic monuments, memorials, and buildings. With the Capitol Building on one end and the Lincoln Memorial on the other,  the National Mall is especially regarded as a must-see for any first time visitors. However, from my three years of living in D.C., my favorite site on the mall is neither the Capitol Building nor the Lincoln Memorial. The World War II Memorial is also beautiful, but I have my heart set on somewhere else – the Korean War Veterans Memorial. It is not an eye-catcher per se; people often find themselves stumbling upon the memorial on their way to see the famous Lincoln.

The Korean War Veterans Memorial is relatively small compared to other sites on the mall. Upon entering the memorial, nineteen statues of soldiers—slightly larger than life size—are  caught marching toward the flag of the United States, faces tensed up. Some are watchful with their heads turned back, and some instilled with fear, but all drained by the war. In front of the leading soldier, a message is carved into fine stone: “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.” In front of the inscription also stands a wreath from the Republic of Korea. Right below the flag, there is a pool of remembrance where the water runs without stop. And slightly behind the pool on a black granite wall, the slogan reads: “Freedom is not free.” Next to the soldiers, faint images of thousands of unknown faces that served during the war decorate another dark grey granite wall.

My grandfather is a veteran. Although the Korean War Veterans Memorial was not built specifically for Korean veterans, its purpose to commemorate their sacrifices reminds me of my grandfather. He never shared his stories about the war or his family back in the north. Growing up, his hesitance sometimes frustrated me, but it also instilled curiosity about not only the war itself, but its impact on the two Koreas. This is the main reason behind my application for the MOU program. As I have become more serious about inter-Korean relations and unification issues in my studies, the MOU program was a great opportunity for me to delve more deeply and directly into this issue.

Now that I am back to my routine life, it is strange to reflect on my summer in Korea. With another busy semester ahead, I never gave myself enough time to debrief on what I had seen, learned, and experienced through the MOU program. Out of many parts of the program, it’s hard to pinpoint a favorite. Each part exposed me to different aspects of the implications of a separated Korea and unification. However, I will always remember the moment I stepped on the North Korean-Chinese border. Having one foot in North Korea was my very first physical exposure to the forbidden part of the Korean peninsula, and I cannot forget how exciting yet melancholy it felt.

I have not been back to the memorial in almost half a year. But it is certain that my next visit will be a complete different experience. I have yet to figure out how to actively stay involved in unification issues in the midst of a crazy semester and in a community where unification is deemed unrealistic, but I do know that I will never forget this summer just as I will never forget the forgotten war.

Self-Introduction and Reflection on 2012 Overseas Correspondent Summer Program

When my family used to live in Seoul, I could easily hear about North Korea from my parents, grandparents and teachers. Just like any other Korean elementary school students of my age, I eventually gained some basic knowledge of North Korea and Korean history. Yet I did not notice anything too inconvenient about living in a divided country, nor did I feel any insecurity about the two Koreas being in the state of war. Maybe I was too young to be concerned about unification issues. Ironically, what made me interested in North Korean problems is has been my experience living outside of Korea since fifth grade.

I was raised mostly in New Zealand and have spent my most recent years in the US as a college student. While living outside of Korea – particularly after I decided to major in economics and international relations in college – I naturally started to wonder what non-Koreans thought about Korea. I was often surprised by the amount of attention that non-Korean societies and media pay to North Korea, especially regarding nuclear security. Considering that almost every South Korean citizen is at least aware of such issues, it seemed to me that the South Korean public was relatively indifferent to North Korean politics and unification issues. However, these problems on the Korean peninsula are global-scale security concerns and essential human rights issues that need to be solved sooner or later. Therefore, I wanted more people around me to be aware and concerned about the two Koreas. This is what motivated me to participate in the Overseas Correspondent Summer Program.

The most memorable activity of the Program for me was the volunteering at Hangyeore Middle and High School. While teaching English and mentoring young North Korean defectors, we had an invaluable opportunity to become close friends with them. As I got to know more about the students, I heard about their tragic memories associated with North Korea, and how much risk they had to take to enter South Korea. Also, after having witnessed how hard the students try to adapt to South Korean society, I could truly understand what it means for them to live a new life in South Korea.

Because of the Overseas Correspondent Summer Program, I now have many stories to tell and memories to keep. I believe that these stories and memories will always inspire me to learn more about North Korean issues and think about how I can contribute to resolving them. Moreover, I hope that my activities as an Overseas Correspondent will be able to inspire more people to be interested in the unification of the two Koreas.

My Road To Korea

I am a graduate student specializing in Econometrics, and despite being the only overseas correspondent who does not study something along the lines of international relations and/or politics, I have always been fascinated by North Korea, specifically, and Asia/the Korean Peninsula, generally. This was also the driving reason for my first visit to Asia in 2010, when I studied in Hong Kong during my exchange semester.

Personally, it is very hard to accurately outline the exact reasons behind my strong interest in North Korea and Korean (re)unification. Perhaps being from Germany partially explains why I have naturally been more exposed to the issue of unification. At the age of 16, I started watching a documentary about North Korea on Google video. Without knowing exactly why, I continued to watch the next documentary and then another one. What I do know is that I have become so fascinated and interested that, today, I have watched all available documentaries I can find online and am a regular guest in the Asian section of my University’s library. The trigger to get actively involved and apply for an internship at MOU was reading the book called Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick, a book that I very much recommend anyone who is interested in North Korea to read.

My time at MOU this summer was extremely interesting, to say the least. What made it truly interesting was the diversity of the program, which enabled us to see and do a lot of different things. The week at the Unification Education Center offered a very different, at least with respect to my own preconceptions, perspective about South Korea’s approach towards its Northern neighbor. Personally, this was a good experience because it broadened my understanding and enabled me to also take on a South Korean perspective.

The best part of the program was the time I spent at Hangyeore High School. This was a very rewarding, albeit sometimes quite shocking, experience because actually talking to and interacting with North Koreans is very different than reading about it in a book, however good that book may be. Each one of us was assigned to one North Korean student and, while the first step is always the hardest, it was really possible to see how this relationship evolved and grew for two weeks. One of the things that struck me most was the power of sports. Almost all students really enjoyed playing sports and it was great to see how similar people from all over the world really are and how quickly it is possible to overcome initial barriers, despite not sharing a common language or cultural background, through such seemingly simple games like basketball or badminton.

Even though it has not always been easy, I am very glad to have had the opportunity to join MOU and be able to play a part, however small, in Korean unification. As such, I hope that our upcoming articles will provide some insights and, most importantly, help to raise awareness.

Reflection on My MOU Internship Experience

Through my internship with the Ministry of Unification Overseas Student Correspondent Program, I have broadened and deepened my knowledge in two areas and developed skills that will help me in my future career.

The first is Korean unification. Although I took a course in the modern history of Korea while studying abroad at Waseda University, I did not have detailed knowledge of issues in North-South relations, especially in the last two decades, which have been very eventful for both Koreas. Through interactions with South Korean government officials, experts on peninsular relations, and North Korean defectors, I have acquired an in-depth understanding of the obstacles to unification.

The second is refugee issues. I had taken a course on the international human rights regime and a colloquium on human rights issues in the contemporary world, but I had no practical experience of working with refugees. By participating in a variety of activities with North Korean defectors (such as volunteering at a defector assimilation centre and tutoring young refugees at Hangyore School), I gained first-hand knowledge of the problems faced by refugees as they struggle to adapt to life in a different society. In the future, I hope to practice human rights law, probably in Korea, so knowledge in both these areas will be very important.

In addition, I was able to improve my skills in several areas. The first is diplomacy. Among Koreans, North-South relations are an extremely contentious issue. South Korea is ideologically polarized between those who want to reach out to the North through engagement and those who simply want to effect regime change by intensifying the political, economic, and military pressure on Pyongyang. In addition, North Korean defectors have often found it difficult to adapt to the competitive, high-pressure nature of life in the South, where they are often viewed as country bumpkins. Navigating these divides has forced me to improve my skills in demonstrating respect, listening to opposing points of view, and seeking common ground.

The second skill area is teaching and mentoring. I had never taught or tutored in a formal setting. By tutoring North Korean defectors enrolled in a special high-school program, I began to learn how to assess the needs of students and devise strategies to help them. It was great hearing inside stories about their lives back home in North Korea and how they have escaped home from the students at the Hangyore School and a lot of us were able to create strong bonds with our mentees that we still keep in touch today.

The third is journalism. As I contribute to the OneKorea blog throughout the year, I will continue to incorporate skills I have acquired from this summer and through my studies to provide valuable insight as well as my own personal take on unification. I already have some journalistic experience thanks to an internship I did at Waseda, writing articles on life in Japan from a foreigner’s perspective. However, I expect that contributing to OneKorea will require a higher level of research and analytical skill.

My internship with the MOU Overseas Student Correspondent Program allowed me to reconnect with Korea. I had been studying abroad (in Canada, the United States, and Japan) since the 7th grade. Despite regular trips home during holidays, I felt estranged from my native country. My MOU internship helped me reintegrate into Korean society and build a personal network of socially and politically conscious Korean students and professionals. By the end of the summer, I had acquired many new Facebook friends and great memories. More importantly, the internship awakened in me the hope  that I can make a small contribution toward the unification of my country, a cause which is dear to my heart, while I advance toward my career goal of working as a lawyer for the promotion of human rights, international understanding, and economic development.   It was a rare and precious experience, and I look forward to contributing to the MOU blog for the current academic year.

This Land is My Land

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Chinese workers cover up the sign of a Uniqlo clothing store in Beijing                          Photo Credits: European Pressphoto Agency

 

18 September 2012                                                                                                          Beijing, P.R. CHINA

The atmosphere in China’s capital city of Beijing is noticeably tense on this warm autumn day; the nearby 7-eleven[1] and the Uniqlo clothing store down the street from my apartment are closed for business on this Tuesday afternoon.  Toyota, Honda and Nissan brand cars fashion bumper stickers and slogans championing Chinese nationalism and decrying Japanese imperialism.  All of this follows protests, demonstrations and riots which continue in the wake of tensions arising from the purchase by the Japanese Government of three of five islands which make up a disputed island chain – known as the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese and Senkaku Islands in Japanese – located off the coast of China and claimed by both countries.

This incident, minus the mass demonstrating and rioting, bears uncanny resemblance to the heated South Korean-Japanese dispute over the Dokdo islands, and is just one of the many unresolved conflicts originating from the handover of territory from Imperial Japan to the Allied powers following the end of World War II.  During this process, one of the most significant events occurred when a line drawn on a map indefinitely divided the nation of Korea in half along the 38th parallel north.

As a second generation Korean-American, I have lived the majority of my life disconnected from my roots and apathetic to the pains and sorrows of my motherland.  I visited South Korea for the first time four years ago and a year later came to China to study and attend graduate school, ready to take advantage of China’s rapid construction and development to fuel my career in architecture.

One day, however, my travels brought me to the far edge of one of China’s most outlying provinces where I was able to take one of my first glimpses into the reclusive North Korea.  Standing on the banks of the Tumen River – just a stone’s throw from the adjacent North Korean soil – the impacts of a divided nation became conscious to me for the first time.  As those realizations began to sink into my mind, I shifted my attention away from the all-too-familiar headlines of nuclear weapons and refugees, to focus on the deeper issue: a divided people.

I joined the Ministry of Unification’s internship program not as a method for bolstering my marketable competiveness, but rather to foster an ongoing academic and personal research in which I was already consumed.  The MOU internship was not your typical office internship, which suited me because I was not your typical International Relations or Politics major intern; and while at first glance (and probably second and third) issues in architecture and Korean Unification seem incompatible, the last year of my studies have been devoted to exploring and uncovering such issues.  And while I’m still digesting and internalizing all that I have learned and experienced through MOU’s internship program this summer, one noticeable difference in my attitude is clear:

A few years ago I would have apathetically disregarded such incidents like the Dokdo and Diaoyu islands dispute as trivial bickering between nations.  However, I now see them in a different perspective, tracing them back to the roots from which they originate and understanding them as conflicts embedded in much deeper intense historical issues, and realizing that they, like Korean unification, will take more than simple political negotiations and discussions to resolve.


[1] The 7-Eleven convenience store chain is Japanese-owned in China, see: Johnson, Ian, and Thom Shanker. “More Protests in China Over Japan and Islands.”http://www.nytimes.com. The New York Times, 18 Sept. 2012. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/19/world/asia/china-warns-japan-over-island-dispute.html&gt;.

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What Unification Means for Me…

On the evening news at my grandfather’s house one day, I watched a
story about South Korean families reuniting with their long-lost relatives from
North Korea. People were crying in joy, some fainting. I found it strange that my
grandfather showed no particular reaction to this, so I asked, “Grandpa, have you
ever signed up for these meetings?” I was surprised again by his lack of emotion
when he answered no because I knew that he had family in the North, but I know
now that he was not cold-hearted; he just didn’t want to put them in harm’s way.
My grandfather moved to the south at the age of thirteen from a village
in what is present-day North Korea. He was the eldest son of a wealthy family,
but after the communist regime took over, nothing could be guaranteed. In
anticipation of the war, he came with his father to see whether there were
economic opportunities near Seoul. But when they tried to return to get the rest
of the family, the war had broken out. They were separated just like that. This
family history of separation is only a piece of Korean history.

But ironically, despite the imperishable blood ties between the two
states, there is a growing apathy toward reunification in South Korea. Most
people dismiss it as economically impractical and are unwilling to sacrifice any
of their comforts by reuniting with a country whose economic size is only one-
twentieth of ours. In addition, there are numerous political and social divisions
that have ossified over the past half-century. Reunification, whether it happens
through negotiations or brought about suddenly by world events, will be a difficult
and complex process that will drastically alter life on the Korean peninsula.
Nevertheless, there is an important human dimension to the story of the two
Koreas, which often gets lost in the calculus of economic costs and burdens of
reunification.

Given this history, I sympathize with my grandfather’s seemingly
indifferent and cold reaction to the scenes on television. Sometimes, he even
expresses strong criticisms of the South Korean government to engage the
North. But deep inside, I know he misses his mother, brother, and sister very
much. Like other South Koreans, my grandfather may consider reunification a
luxury that we cannot afford amidst nuclear weapons and ideological conflict, but
that does not erase the feelings of longing or hope that he has suppressed for
decades. It was difficult to speak to him about what I was seeing on television
that day, but it was the beginning of a much longer conversation that we have
shared over the years, a discussion of our family chronicle and national history.

My grandfather is still reticent sometimes when I broach the topic,
and I see in his continuing hesitation a broader reluctance in South Korean society to actively engage in national dialogue about reunification. No doubt the economics of reunification is important, and North Korea must change its ways. We must be more conscious of our future and articulate a clear strategy to integrate the peninsula while minimizing adverse consequences. This requires leadership, a tolerance for sacrifice, and intellectual creativity.

With each passing year, we are losing a generation of Koreans directly
separated from their families. Many have lost hope. I know my grandfather
wishes to see his hometown once more and reunite with his family. It is a
sentiment that he rarely shows, but I know and empathize with his yearning.

I am embarrassed to admit that, even I, a South Korean national, and
coming from a university where everyone has something to say about politics
and foreign affairs, have not considered North Korean issues deeply and so
personally until this summer. The rest of the world regards North Korea as a
burden that they are reluctant to take on. Even among South Koreans, education
about unification is ingrained into our school system since primary school, with
annual poster and slogan competitions to promote unification, but the imperative
for unification is unclear for most young students who now have few apparent
ties with the North.

Through the Ministry of Unification Overseas Correspondent Program,
travelling along the North Korean border in China, working with North Korean
defectors, and meeting a (sadly) rare group of young students who are
passionate about North Korean affairs, I better understand the meaning
of ‘Hangyeore’—which roughly translates to one people—, and am more hopeful
for unification as a real future for the Korean peninsula. As I start my third year at
Georgetown, I am eager to share my experiences from this summer and become
an active agent in raising awareness about unification among my immediate
community as well as gaining global support regarding this matter.

A Few Weeks Later

To be honest, any issue surrounding North Korea has only become a recent interest of mine. I was born and raised in America, but for the past five years, I lived in Seoul. My knowledge on North Korea was nothing more than the usual news coverage on missiles and human rights abuses. But when people jokingly started to ask if I’m from the “good” or “bad” Korea in college, I realized I had surprisingly limited knowledge on North Korea. Whatever I read on the NY Times or I hear from the news, I would always readily accept media’s portrayal of North Korea without critical analysis.

I went into freshman year of college hoping to take a class on anything regarding
the Korean peninsula. To my dismay, Tufts University did not offer any classes on
Korea. As an international relations major with a concentration in international security,
I hoped to gain perspective and learn more about Korea through the MOU summer
internship. And that is exactly what I did.

Travelling to China-North Korea border, taking classes, and volunteering at
Hangyeorae gave me a perspective on almost all aspects on North Korea and unification:
its economy, human rights violation, politics, history, relations with neighboring
countries, etc. The program was well-rounded in informing us about North Korea and the
factors needed for unification. Travelling to China and climbing Mt. Baekdu helped me
understand the historical and territorial disputes between China and Korea. Volunteering
at Hangyeorae, which was probably the best part of the program, allowed me to develop a
lasting friendly relationships with the North Korean defectors.

Most importantly, this summer was rather eye-opening. One of the facts that
struck me the most was how there was a division on the thoughts of unification between
the younger and older generation in South Korea. The older generation believes in
unification—that the two Koreas must unify soon. On the other hand, the younger
generation doesn’t see the need of unification nor does the idea even frequently cross
their minds. While I was living in Seoul, the thought of unification never really crossed
my mind and when it did, those thoughts would only last a couple of seconds: unification
will probably happen, but not in the near future. Never did I realize that there are so
many domestic and international factors that need to be aligned in order for a successful
unification.

It’s only been a few weeks since I’ve been back to the States and I can already
say that the MOU summer program motivates me to tell others about how I spent my
summer. Most people are already interested when I say that my internship involves North
Korean related issues, but once I mention that my internship is focused on the North and
South Korean unification, their facial expressions change and become more interested
about the topic. As of now, I think that the international community has a limited view on
North Korea, a view that I had previous to this past summer. And yes, the international
security and the human rights violations are important issues, but those are not the only
issues at hand. Before any other step is made toward unification, it is important to get the people to think and believe that Korea will be one nation.

The Special Economic Zone of Rason

Construction continues on piers 1 and 2 in Rajin port, North Korea, part of Rason Special Economic Zone. Photo taken on August 20th, 2012. Photo credit Associated Press.

These days, Rason is the place to be. Check out the Associated Press’s video showing the bustling market.The special economic zone of Rason lies at the far northeastern corner of North Korea, just below the confluence of borders between China and Russia. Rason occupies a far-flung stretch of coastline providing an important link between landlocked Jilin province of China and the East Sea. It also borders Russia, a scant 90 miles from Vladivostok and the eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Rason was envisioned as a special area within North Korea for industry and foreign investment. But the political vision has been somewhat inconsistent; its status has fluctuated over the years. It originated as two cities, Rajin and Sonbong. From 1993 to 2001 they were integrated politically to form Rason, a “Directly Governed City” separate from the rest of the province. From 2004 to 2010 the city was reintegrated into the surrounding countryside, considered a part of North Hamgyong Province. Since 2010, the city has been a “Special City” and Choson Exchange notes that further legislation in late 2011 took steps to harmonize Rason’s laws with the China’s capitalist economy.

It’s an important area for many reasons. Most significantly, it has the region’s northernmost ice-free port, with links to sea and rail traffic for China and Russia. Russia leases Pier #3 in the port, and is upgrading it along with a nearby bridge to accept Russian-gauge trains; this would allow them to travel directly from Rason’s port all the way to Moscow along the 10,000-kilometer span of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Foreign investment in industry is proceeding slowly but steadily. North Korea lacks the resources to rapidly develop the area, so most of the investment is from small and medium-sized business. For instance, North Korea also plans to upgrade rail lines to China’s Jilin province, but these plans have been slow to eventuate.

Right now, though, the tourism sector is showing the biggest growth. Chinese tourists are now allowed to drive their own cars in Rason; sightseers from neighboring Jilin province can be seen driving cars all over the city, according to a report by Choson Exchange in August 2012. What was once a three-hour drive from the border has been cut to 50 minutes by a new road, and new road signs are trilingual in Korean, Chinese, and English. The presence of Chinese cars on the road is anachronous to the rest of the country, but they attest to Rason’s status as a special economic zone: “the allowance of self-driving Chinese was also designed to make it more convenient for interested Chinese investors to inspect the region,” Choson Exchange explains.

For many, though, investment was a minor concern. Rason’s link to the East Sea is equally important for recreation as well as industry, as tourists flocked to the beaches this past summer, booking hotels to capacity. There’s also been a casino there for over a decade.

A mixed-use retail/residential/commercial park is also under construction. It is reported to include a Pottery Barn among other shops selling clothes, hardware, electronics, and other goods. These will probably be principally targeted toward Chinese consumers; the stores will accept Chinese currency.

The region has its own cell phone network operated by the Thai company Loxley-Pacific; this presumably allows local administrators and businessmen to communicate with their foreign counterparts in China.

Rason seems to be an experiment similar to China’s work with Shenzhen in the 1980s, though it remains to be seen whether the experiment will be as dynamic as Shenzhen proved to be. Shenzhen, a small fishing village in 1979, grew at an unprecedented pace of 28% annually after Deng Xiaoping opened it as a Special Economic Zone to foreign investment; it now numbers 12 million inhabitants and has the fourth-highest economic output in China. Many believe, though, that it grew too explosively; the New York Times notes that “Shenzhen has begun to look less like a model than an ominous warning of the limitations of a growth-above-all approach.”

Rason’s steadier pace offers hope for a more reasonable pace of change; in this, North Korea’s limited resources might be something to be grateful for. Still, it’s one of the most rapidly changing and unique areas in North Korea.

Children peek from behind a wall in Rason, North Korea in October 2011. Photo credit Ng Han Guan / Associated Press.

The Potential Dangers of Economic Reform


A North Korean man bowls on April 6, 2012. Photo credit David Guttenfelder / Associated Press.

Everyone is bruiting about a new openness in North Korea. The opinions range; many news sources seize on Mickey Mouse concerts, photos of Kim Jong Un on a rollercoaster, and even appearances of Coca-Cola in small Pyongyang restaurants as evidence that North Korea is, finally, opening up to the outside world. Others—senior intelligence experts in South Korea, policy analysts at universities—believe these to be irrelevant details blown out of proportion by the media’s perennial interest in finding evidence of reform in the reclusive state.

The most balanced conclusion seems to be that North Korea is indeed experimenting with small economic reforms. In fact, North Korea has tacitly attempted or conceded economic reform in many instances already; most of those cases were reactions or concessions to an already extant reality. But the pace of change in later years has increased. Even before the succession of his son, Kim Jong Il had refocused energy on a special economic zone along the border with China, announced a renewed focus on the economy, and permitted small markets to be held. And since Kim Jong Il’s death, most analysts—even the KCNA, North Korea’s official news organ—have found evidence that changes of some sort are on the horizon.

Some writers falsely conflate these market-based experiments with the dawn of an impending market economy. I don’t want to commit to that—such a dawn is not yet apparent. Still, it might be useful to flesh out the possibilities down the road from such economic reforms. What problems might North Korea face if it continues along the path of more open markets?

To answer, I’ll turn to Andrei Lankov. Lankov has taught North Korean studies in South Korea’s Kookmin University since 2004. In the field of North Korean affairs, he has been among the most hesitant to give credence to reports of economic reform, arguing that small, isolated, reversible experiments in new economic practices should not be construed as overt indications of reform. In general, he’s been a consistent voice against believing everything you read.

Andrei Lankov is interviewed on July 7th, 2011. Photo credit Mok Yong Jae / Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights.

But even he, in an article posted on September 7th, 2012, writes that “North Korea has begun to change with almost alarming speed.” He goes so far as to say, in an interview with Radio Free Asia, “I think that [Kim Jong Un] faces a really high probability of regime collapse in a few years. And I don’t think he fully understands this.”

What’s the connection between change and regime collapse?

He says that it seems almost undeniable that economic reform is being attempted—yes, the experiments are still small, but they are too widespread and too many in number not to reflect a genuine policy interest from a high level. This economic reform is intended, he speculates, to manifest itself as a part of a “developmental dictatorship” in which the Kim family and other senior power-holders retain a largely absolute power over political matters in the country even as a market economy emerges; he also says that, at least at first, even a market economy would disproportionately empower the political elite.

Lankov claims, though, that such a developmental dictatorship cannot function in the context of the Korean peninsula. Greater economic opening will necessarily mean greater knowledge of the huge divide in prosperity between North and South Korea, which will tend to make North Koreans want unification. And unification is an everything-to-lose prospect for the North Korean elite. They fear, he claims, that they will be pushed aside after unification or maybe even punished by their own subjects.

All in all, Lankov says that reform is likely, and it is also likely to be destabilizing. This might mean two different paths:

1)   The leadership will rein back reforms if they prove unstable, or else:

2)   The instability will grow away from the capacity of the state to control, in which case North Korea will have a revolution on its hands. What happens then is anyone’s guess.

In the end, we don’t know what to expect. Lankov quotes a colleague’s summation: “Poor North Korean leaders… If they do not start reform, they will wait for their demise. But if they start reform, they will speed up their demise.” What would anyone choose in that type of situation?

However things proceed, it seems clear that change of some sort is in the air. If economic reform is truly in the works, we can hope that the knowledge and, ultimately, the policies of all involved parties will be shaped by careful analysis of the possible dangers of reform in the specific context of the Korean peninsula.

For more details, check out:

Associated Press

Washington Post

Korea Economic Institute

Chanmi’s MOU internship experience

There is learning, there is understanding, and there is action. This is exactly the process I followed while finding out about the 2012 MOU Overseas Correspondents’ Internship Program. After my visit back from North Korea in 2011, my experiences gained from what I saw and discovered about the unknown country made me realise how essential Korean reunification really is.

Korea is the only divided country in the world and I felt very much inclined to do something, anything to learn more about the issue and hopefully, find some solutions. This is when Google search came in handy and I spotted the Ministry of Unification’s website. I followed their blogs and kept in touch with them for over six months, and became keen on the internship they offered. My lesson is: if an opportunity arises, definitely seize it!

So who am I, you ask?

I am a Korean-born-Australian who believes that the reunification issue is a global responsibility. My MOU internship was supported by the Australian Government through the Australia-Korea Foundation of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

I recently graduated from the University of Melbourne with a double major in International Studies/Political Science and German. My knowledge in German history provides empirical evidence that reunification is possible and will happen sooner than later. The question should not be “when,” but whether or not we are “ready” for reunification. We’ve got to act now to prepare for what is inevitable.

In the next few paragraphs, I will briefly outline three of my most memorable moments from my MOU internship.

1. Unification & Future Leader Camp

After the orientation and the presentation of our letters of appointment, I knew I made the right choice. With a packed schedule, we were kept very busy, that is, we were flying off to China the next day. At the camp, we were assigned into teams and I was with half of our Overseas Correspondents team, along with some of the Korean Correspondents. This was “Team 12”. My team leader made us feel very welcome and despite my unfamiliar sounding Aussie accent, we got along so well and I absolutely loved my team. The camp brought us even closer together and we had so much fun taking photos (not forgetting to do the “peace signs” of course), eating together and making the UCC video for our project.

The trip offered us the chance to visit some of the significant locations in China related to North Korea (Tumen, Mt. Baekdu, Dandong and Dalian, just to name a few). Here, the reality of the divided Koreas was evident and I felt grateful as a Korean-Australian to have had the opportunity to visit the North, whereas the South Koreans were not permitted, even if they wanted to.  North Korea seems so close for them, and yet so far. This changed my understanding about how much the Korean youth of today really wanted reunification.

2. Unification Education

For a whole week, we attended lectures prepared by South Korean government officials and other professionals to learn about North Korea, issues surrounding reunification and the relations between the two Koreas. There were also musical performances showcasing North Korean singing and dancing, as well as field trips to the Unification Observatory and the 3rd Underground Tunnel.

On the last day of the Education Week, a “Talk Concert” was held. I mentioned previously that my Korean wasn’t all that perfect but to my surprise, I was nominated to take part in one of the segments of the event. I had no idea what I had got myself into but I committed to memorising paragraphs of Korean texts written about the “unijar” – unification jar within the short timeframe. Throwing in some impromptu English phrases and jokes assisted by the famous Gag Concert comedians, I was able to execute the task somewhat smoothly. Despite my nerves and limited preparation for the task, it was such a rewarding experience. Not only because I got to be up on stage with the famous actors, but also because I had an opportunity to take part in an event related to the reunification issue.

3. Teaching English at Hangyeorae

For two weeks, we were each assigned to a student for a mentoring program at a North Korean defector middle and high school. My mentee’s name was Mi-Hyang and she was very outgoing and confident. I could see that she was comfortable with having me around. In order to assimilate completely into the students’ daily routine we were woken up at six in the morning for a short aerobics lesson, joined in with our mentees in their cleaning duties, and prepared for our English classes by coming up with a plan on what techniques would best suit our students in learning English. Many of our activities involved playing games together as a group, which was a success, as the kids seem to learn from these exercises and enjoy them too.

For one on one diary-writing sessions, I realised my mentee knew only the basics of English. It took a lot of patience for me to individually spell out every letter for her to write one word or a sentence, but it was satisfying to see how quickly she picked up the language. I encouraged her to make mistakes because it’s a good way to learn and improve. As a result, she was never afraid to write a letter in advance, even before I called them out for her.

With the conclusion of the program, the fact that we could plant a little seed of hope for the students and bring a burst of joy and happiness to their lives was clearly something that we  are proud of achieving (as evident from their big smiles when comparing the shots of their before and after photos). I want to wish the students at Hangyeorae the very best of luck for the future and believe that they will become important representatives of Korean reunification. I really miss each and every one of them and hope to see them again one day.

Writing this article made me realise how fast time has flown by, yet I still managed to accumulate countless number of precious memories. Looking back at my application for the internship, I can guarantee that my expectations have undeniably exceeded, and my goals have certainly been achieved. It truly was an honour to be a part of this rare internship experience and I have gained a great deal from this internship: I have made lasting friendships all over the world, I was able to work directly with North Koreans, my Korean skills have improved significantly,  and finally, but definitely not the least, I learned more about the Korean culture and how “skinship” is something rather unfamiliar to the Koreans.

My passion for Korean reunification has grown even stronger now and I’m inspired to seek extensively for answers to this issue – our issue. I would like to say a big thank you to everyone who was a part of this journey with me.

Now, I wait for the day when the answer “Korea” is sufficient enough (when asked about where I come from) instead of an instant questioning back of “South or North?”

All the photos are the property of the author’s. 

The Right Summer Choice: An Internship with the Ministry of Unification

Decisions naturally narrow down to one of two choices: C or B on a multiple
choice exam, the ripped jeans or the faded one, college x or college y…

For the summer of 2012, my fix over what to do narrowed down to either
summer classes at Yonsei University, or a six-week internship with the Ministry of
Unification. At the time, I was strongly leaning toward summer classes at Yonsei. My
university, though boasting a strong International Relations undergraduate major
of which I was a part of, in comparison to the other concentrations one could choose
within the major, was lacking in East Asian area studies.

Yonsei provided more than a dozen of intriguing summer courses dealing
specifically with East Asia. My parents had already promised to cover the tuition
and, moreover, I could easily transfer the credits I earned back to my home
university. When I received acceptance to the MOU internship program, I was still
leaning towards the summer classes at Yonsei, but after informing my parents of
the internship, they immediately jumped onto the internship bandwagon telling me
what a great opportunity it was and how much it would benefit me in the future. I
was skeptical at the time and felt I would gain more from taking a summer full of
intensive courses than I would through an internship, even though it was with the
Ministry of Unification.

At the time, all I knew about the MOU internship was that it involved
teaching English to North Korean defectors and learning more about the situation
in North Korea. This did not particularly interest me — for the past six months I had
already been teaching English to a half-dozen North Korean defectors several times
a week and had attended numerous lectures on North Korea. As such, I wrongly
felt that I would have little to gain through the internship. However, after some
convincing on the part of my parents (and grandmother), I reluctantly did a 180 and
informed the MOU internship program coordinator of my intention to commit to the
internship program.

As it turns out, deciding to go with the MOU internship was without a doubt
the best decision I made all summer.

First off, looking back on the “internship”, I feel that the word “experience”
more aptly describes the program I had just completed. It wasn’t so much an
MOU internship; rather, it was an MOU experience. The experience of a week-
long expedition along the Sino-DPRK border. The experience of a series of highly
informative lectures (albeit all in Korean) on various topics related to North Korea
from experts in the field. The experience of interacting with dozens of bubbly middle and high school North Korean defectors for two weeks. The experience of visiting the DMZ and numerous other locations like the third invasion tunnel. The experience of traveling to the southern-most part of the country and seeing the Yeosu Expo.

The word “internship” elicits ideas of hard work and sacrifice – giving up
a summer of fun and play in order to take a step into the real world. While there
was hard work involved (in the form of two UCC video productions), I would not
include sacrifice into the description of this internship. There was fun, there was
play, and there was plenty of adventure. The opportunities that were provided to
my fellow interns and myself proved to be a real eye-opening experience into issues
of national unification and humans rights within North Korea. I will remember the
summer of 2012 as the summer that took an unexpected turn In the end, however, I
am grateful that things turned out the way they did.

2012-2013 MOU Overseas Correspondents: Taylor Webster

In high school, I became interested in North Korea the same way a lot of people do –
hearing laughably ridiculous pop knowledge about North Korea and Kim Jong Il. I had
seen the pictures of beaming female solders walking in goose step, heard the story of
Kim Jong Il’s perfect golf game, and watched Jon Stewart skewer the failed missile tests.
The whole country seemed like such a backwards relic of the Cold War, and I ate it up. I
became something of a local expert on everything bizarre and North Korean.

But it wasn’t long before I ran out of Internet rumors and started to really care about
the world and North Korea’s place in it. I made sure I chose a college with a Korean
language program. I checked for news updates on the Hermit Kingdom on a daily basis
and read any book that I could get my hands on. While browsing the Internet, I stumbled
upon the OneKorea blog and the Overseas Correspondents Program and thought it looked like an amazing opportunity. I applied assuming that they would never choose me,
considering that my Korean skills are minimal and I go to a University without a whole
lot of name recognition. So when I got accepted into the program, I was completely
beside myself with excitement.

The summer program itself was extremely fast paced. I hadn’t been in Seoul for more
than 3 days before we were jetting off to China for an all expenses paid trip along the
North Korean border with about 100 Korean college students. I got way more than I
bargained for. While I expected lectures and tours, I never imagined that I’d be climbing Baekdu Mountain or seeing North Korean propaganda first hand while boating down the Yalu river. Every morning we were up at dawn and never got to bed before midnight. Experienced tour guides kept us company on long bus rides and we all napped in between their lectures. When we returned to South Korea a week later, I was exhausted and my ankles had swollen up to the size of my calves. But I had managed to see and learn so much and I never would have traded that for a few more hours of sleep.

The next week was spent listening to lectures at the Education Center for Unification
and then another two weeks at Hangyeore Middle and High School acting as mentors
for North Korean defectors. Both experiences were enlightening for different reasons.
Hearing a speech about the challenges that North Korean defectors face is a completely
different experience from spending time with someone who has gone through it all.

Overall, the summer was a whirlwind, but it was a great introduction to the Ministry of
Unification and its goals. They were able to fit so much in such a short amount of time.
Most of all, it got me excited about this blog and I can’t wait to start writing.

Change in North Korea?

There have been quite a lot of things happening in North Korea lately. Things that have never happened before. Many experts on North Korean issues are saying that these events are signs of change within North Korea that may lead to reform. Others argue that these changes will not be enough to open up North Korea. Of course, I can’t offer any answers to these debates and it is not OneKorea’s purpose to do so. But instead, I’d like to take a look at some of these changes so that you might be able to form an opinion of your own.

A Relatable Leader

Since Kim Jong Un succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il, to be the leader of the world’s most isolated nation in the world, he’s been doing things a bit differently from the way his father liked things done. For one, he introduced his wife to the world. With Kim Jong Il, the leader’s wives were never officially revealed to the world. We may have had some information about them but you would never see them strutting around the country on the arm of their husband. The previous Kim was well known for his secrecy when it came to his personal life. However, this has not been the same for Kim Jong Un so far. We have been seeing Kim Jong Un and his wife in the news quite often lately as they visit various sites together hand in hand such as amusement parks and preschools.

Continue reading

Korean War Armistice Signing Anniversary

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Truce In Korea 1953

This past July 27th marked the 59th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that officially put the Korean War on hold. It was a silent holiday that went nearly unnoticed by the world. However, for those soldiers who lived through the Korean War, this was an important day, no matter what side they fought on, and many gathered to remember and to celebrate.

In North Korea, this day was celebrated with war veterans visiting Panmunjom to pledge their unchanging loyalty to North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un. Fireworks were also fired to celebrate the day. The commemorations are meant to kindle patriotism and loyalty in North Koreans, and especially the young, by showcasing veterans who fought for their country, said Kim Yeon-su of Korea National Defense University in Seoul. Ahead of the anniversary, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry reiterated its long-standing demand that the United States sign a peace treaty with North Korea to replace the armistice. However, the United States continues to stand by its claim that normal ties will only come after North Korea abandons its pursuit of nuclear weapons and takes other steps towards change. Continue reading

Women in the Markets of North Korea

It is a challenge to report on North Korea without talking sometimes about the hardships in the country. On this blog, we generally try to focus on fostering greater understanding of this place so different from our own, and to do that we often play up the “good news” or choose lighter fare to cover, since so many sources focus instead on the negative. We try to provide a picture of hope.

But, to deserve the respect of our readers, sometimes we have to cover difficult issues. We’ll touch on some such issues in this post.

A new report by the Peterson Institute for International Economics examines the advantages and disadvantages of being a woman in North Korea. It used a detailed survey of refugees living in South Korea to build a picture of life inside North Korea over the past ten or twenty years.

A woman sells snacks at a roadside stand on April 21, 2012. Photo credit David Guttenfelder / AP Photo.

One of the most prominent features of gender inequity in North Korea is the role of women in private markets. Women tended disproportionately to be shed from government or party jobs, which along with the military are deeply biased toward men; women also tend generally to be less likely to hold a job in general. Continue reading