The first week of orientation at SOAS, University of London, I ran into someone who studied abroad at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, North Korea. It was the fall after several Trump-Kim summits, an emotional Moon-Kim summit and the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. We waited in the hallway of the main building for our oral language placement exam. A dozen of us undergrads and post grads mixed together stood nervously outside the examiner’s office in the narrow, yellowed hallway straight out of the 1970s. The student who stood across from me had spent his previous spring term studying the Korean language in Pyongyang. He worried that the SOAS Korean-language curriculum wouldn’t cover the North Korean vocabulary he had acquired.
What had inspired him to study there?
Well, he lived next door to the North Korean embassy in his country (Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, I think) and the people were so lovely and generous. They invited him out so often, he wanted to see their home country.
How did he like it?
He absolutely loved his time there. Here he was riding a horse.
Sorry, was that a cell phone case from North Korea?
He raised it with a sheepish grin so I could take a better look. Indeed, the cell phone case illustrated, in the subtle manner of socialist realist art, how the North Korean army intended to destroy the American pigs. Nuclear weapons pointed at red white and blue. I could only laugh at this [our] bizarre proximity.
I was born in New York in 1990, the grandchild of two Koreas. My father is the son of refugees from the pre-division North. My mother is from the South. In the ‘90s, we would fly to South Korea every other summer to visit my relatives. I loved it as a child, playing with my cousins on Jeju Island. Back in New York my grandfather (on my father’s side) constantly told us stories about the North. We never used the label “refugee” in our family. Perhaps because the word is insufficient for the story.
The Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953. It split the country into two, the capitalist south, backed by the United States, and the communist north, backed by the Soviet Union. By some estimates, 5 million people died. The overwhelming majority were civilian casualties, not military.
(Though at the end of the day, does it matter?) Recently, I came across this line by Pak Kyongni, the doyenne of modern Korean literature, on the war: “He was still a child. That wounded boy was slumped on the tree-lined avenue while the flies, smelling the stench of blood from his intestines, attacked as if possessed.”
An armistice was signed in 1953. Families were divided by the 38th parallel. The war is still officially ongoing.
In my suburban New York public high school, I often overheard my classmates quote lines from the film Team America, a puppet movie that featured Kim Jong Il. This was followed by The Interview in college which featured Kim Jong-un. Mockery of the North Korean dictator always seemed to carry an oriental/racist tinge. I wondered how much of the satire was sincere.
My fellow Americans. The extent of their knowledge began and ended with: Asian dictator, bad hair, nuclear weapons. (Forget the tons of napalm and bombs that the US dropped on the country. Forget the division.) Even in South Korea, propaganda reigns: elementary school children are given writing assignments to create their own variations on slogans like, “Let’s beat Kim Jong Il. Let’s crush the Communist Party.”
It’s difficult to describe the lack of access to nuanced and empathetic reporting about North Koreans. Mainstream news covers the state, never the society, reinforcing the illusion that the people lack agency. (Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy and Tammy Kim’s reporting make the rare exception.) Most stories in the media encourage laughter at the dictator or cultivate a sense of American moral superiority. (Caveat: This was easier for Americans before the age of Trump.) Counterintelligence, human rights, international relations, security threat. All of these terms refer to how our family is erased. The rupture between us and them.
This land was a home. My grandfather had the rare chance to return one last time at the age of 70, after six decades of the division. It took a great deal of orchestration on the part of my father. His only remaining family member was one distant cousin, pictured lean as a twig and next to my then very plump grandfather, sitting before a family meal.
I came to realize that my conversation with the SOAS student who studied abroad in Pyongyang only marked my first encounter with the established diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and North Korea, made possible by James Hoare. Since 2000, there has been a North Korean embassy in London and a British embassy in Pyongyang.
The first Western film ever screened on North Korean television was Bend it Like Beckham.
Naturally, I met Hoare during my second week of SOAS. He donned a blue “Still European” T-shirt spangled with yellow stars under his blazer at a Centre for Korean Studies drinks reception. He’d just flown in from Pyongyang where he had been interviewed on their broadcast TV. He ducked after saying this, jokingly, as if anticipating my outrage at his complicity, capitulation, what have you. I was curious and astonished at how accessible North Korea was to a Briton as compared to an American. By moving from New York to London, I had stumbled upon a world of access to North Korea. Hoare was certain that I could, if I so wished, visit North Korea with an American passport.
In 2015, Otto Warmbier, a young white man from Ohio, decided to visit North Korea on a guided tour. He was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of labor. He died at the age of 22. Since his death, the US State Department prohibits travel with American passports into the country. In recent years, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have played a dangerous game of nuclear brinkmanship, but under South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s leadership, there is hope for peace on the peninsula.
As long as the dictatorship remains, I don’t intend to travel to the North due to the risk of present wartime tensions and the ethics of knowing which pockets my money lines. The access that I’d be granted would be highly controlled. I would have a minder the entire time I’m there. I would likely have to bow and lay wreaths at the statues of dictators. My minders would check what I photograph and allow me only into certain areas.
There’s a line from Bhanu Khapil’s poem on partition, titled 1947: Spell to Reverse A Line that is as guaranteed to make me cry as a Karamo speech on Queer Eye. I wish to share it with you.
I want to open this spell or offer it.
To anyone who needs it.
To anyone whose family system or nervous system.
Has been marked by a war.
That preceded their life span.
And it goes without saying.
That you don’t have to go there.
That you don’t need a visa or cash or a ticket.
To cast this spell.
You can travel.
To these places.
In your dreams.
In your extreme way of making art.
In what it is to be with others.
In the way that you are with others.
New Malden, a town just a forty-minute train ride southwest of London’s city centre, is home to the largest population of North Koreans outside of the peninsula. It’s been covered by the Economist and Guardian and continues to fascinate with its microcosm of North-South tensions. It also has the bonus of not being restricted by visas and law.
In Korean, there are several words for North Korean refugees (distinct from non-Korean refugees), and each carries its particular inflection about their future, past, and trajectories. The older word silhyangmin means “those who lost their homeland.” It has been replaced with seoteomin, or “people in a new place.” This word is future-oriented, facing the unnamed new place.
I’m writing and learning about the Koreas and its literature at SOAS now, and I plan to visit New Malden in the hopes that I will gradually see, record and visit my grandfather’s home — if not in person, then in my art.