Tumen River, 521km-long river which serves as a boundary for the Sino-North Korea border.
Over the course of my life I’ve come across Koreans from all over the world; from New York, São Paulo, Hong Kong, Seoul, and everywhere in between. The story of our encounters is the history of the Korean diaspora. I grew up immersed within the ethnic Korean enclaves of New York City and Bergen County, New Jersey among immigrants who sought asylum from a politically unstable South Korean government in the 1970’s. Upon coming to Asia for graduate school I’ve met Koreans from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan who have been living in Central Asia since Stalin’s forced deportation of Koryo-saram (고려사람) residing in the Soviet Union in the 1930’s; and through my frequent trips to the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in northeast China, I’ve encountered many Joseonjok (조선족 – ethnic Chinese-Koreans) whose history in China traces back over a century and a half.
On one such encounter I met a Joseonjok university student along the banks of the Tumen River. We had been talking for quite some time about the recent passing of Kim Jong Il, what that meant for the future of Pyongyang, and our mutual desire to help North Korea. As he shot a remorseful glance towards North Korea, the Joseonjok student said to me:
“우리는 같은 민족이잖아… 그래서 북한 동포들을 돕는 것은 모든 한국계 민족의 책임입니다.”
“We’re the same ethnicity… therefore it is the responsibility of all Koreans to help our North Korean brethren.”
This account later became the inspiration for a public service announcement-esque video that the Ministry of Unification Overseas Correspondents were required to produce during our internship in Seoul. The objective of my group’s video was two-fold: first, to address the apathy of the public towards Korean reunification by reiterating the fact that although physically separated for nearly 65 years, Koreans are still one people – the terms North and South are merely labels, rather than an explicit divide; and second, to call together the voice of the entire ethnic Korean community as advocates for a united Korea – unification, although largely a political issue, is fundamentally about the restoration of a Korean people.
As the video commences in black and white, ostensibly Korean faces are shown in succession against the backdrop of a solemn tune. No words are spoken, but captions pose rhetorical questions for the audience. Who are we? Just by looking, can you tell? The once silent faces begin a series of self-introductions, introducing their “identities” as ethnic Koreans. Clearly Korean in semblance and all speaking the same language, the faces are shown in progression to highlight that they are differentiated merely by nationality and accent. Furthermore, it emphasizes the ambiguity and arbitrariness of the terms “ethnicity” and “nationality”. As this sequence continues, the audio is flooded by a choir of background voices providing additional testimony to this fact in a somewhat chaotic progression.
After the crescendo of voices reaches its climax, out of a silent black screen a singular voice introduces the speaker as a North Korean defector. As she continues her speech the “lights” come on, giving her a face and exposing the humanity of a group of people often considered and referred to by society under mere titles such as North Korean, Refugee or Defector. Although by circumstance she happened to be born in the north, and later escaped to the south and became a citizen of South Korea, she was always a Korean from the start. She entreats the audience to remember that those still in North Korea are also Korean; that they were, are and always will be the brothers of a Korean ethnicity community.
Why? Simply stated, because we are one Korean people, 한민족 (han minjok). The word han (한) in Korean refers both to the numeral 1 and the Korean (韩) people. One Korean ethnicity; regardless of where you have come from, where you currently are, or in the future whether you will live in a divided or unified Korea, whether you’re from New York, São Paulo, Hong Kong, Seoul, or anywhere in between, including Pyongyang.