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.