Often times it is the random, seemingly insignificant occurrences in our lives that can have the most profound impact on shaping our ideas, dreams and convictions. Sometimes these minor events can even play a powerful role in breaking the unexamined preconceptions and unchallenged prejudices that we unknowingly grasp on to. The people that we meet—and the conversations that we have with them—can be an effective catalyst for propelling our thoughts and refining our own understanding of who we are and what we stand for.
I met Professor Um on the 24-hour-long train ride departing from Beijing destined towards the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in mainland China—a curious region nestled in the far northeastern frontier of the country where the nations of China, Russia and North Korea meet. We had both booked our ticket late so we were forced to make the dreadfully long journey by seating class, rather than the substantially more comfortable sleeping compartment. Tightly squeezed in our narrow seats, we sat facing each other separated by a mere meter distance and a small table on which all of our next three meals would be eaten during the coming 24 hours.
As the train pulled out of the station and screamed its farewell, the passengers settled and commenced with their train-riding routine. On these long train journeys you can do one (or any combination) of four activities: play card games, eat your heart’s content of sunflower seeds, sleep or talk. As the woman sitting beside me started on her bag of sunflower seeds, Professor Um examined me quietly with searching eyes before sparking up a conversation. I don’t remember what language we started our conversation in, but Professor Um eventually introduced himself as an ethnic Chinese-Korean, or Joseonjok, and a professor and researcher of the Korean ethnic population. Thus, I spent the majority of the journey receiving a private lecture from the professor.
We talked about a wide variety of topics related to the Korean peninsula and people. Starting from current events, we talked about the election of Park Geun Hye as the new President of the South Korea and worked our way backwards through time discussing such topics as the prominence of Ban Ki Moon as Secretary General of the United Nations, the events of Saigu (4.19, more commonly known as the 1992 Los Angeles riots), the economic developments and political histories of North and South Korea, the Korean resistance and independence movement of freedom fighters from Japanese colonial occupation, and finally, the unification of the Korean peninsula.
As a Joseonjok, Professor Um’s views on, and desire for unification were quite strong. Historically, Joseonjok have maintained close ties with North Korea, as many of them can trace their lineage back to the North; even their Korean dialects are similar. However, in recent years, many Joseonjok have found economic opportunities in South Korea and continue to migrate there in large numbers for work. Notwithstanding, the culture of South Korea has pierced deep into the heart of Yanbian. Because of this dual allegiance, association and affinity for both ‘sides’, Professor Um explained that the Joseonjok people maintain a strong desire for Korean unification. He went on to state that unification is not an act which can be accomplished by the authority of Presidents, but through the will of the people. The professor urged me to advocate and talk about Korea unification with others just as he had done with me. He identified this as the most single most important duty I could undertake for the unification of the Korean peninsula.
24 hours after we began our conversation, the train reached its final stop and we disembarked having reached our destination just a short distance from the Sino-DPRK border. If it weren’t for a divided Korea, I could have probably taken that train all the way to Seoul or Busan. As we exchanged goodbyes on the station platform, Professor Um charged me one last time to take to heart the things he had told me.
Our meeting had been entirely coincidental, but my encounter with Professor Um forced me to re-examine and revisit my role as an overseas correspondent for the Ministry of Unification, the influence that this title carries, and the messages I aim to convey through my articles. I came to realize just how important widespread support is for the cause of Korean unification, and how vital that education and awareness of the issues are. You and I may not have the authority of the President of South Korea or the Supreme Leader of North Korea, but we each have the simple power of a conversation at our disposal; a tool that can be influential in helping to shape the opinions, attitudes and feelings of others towards the goal of Korean unification, and that is a powerful tool.