Are you proud?

My friends and I outside the embassy in Seoul

This photo was taken three and a half years ago in Seoul, South Korea, on the last day of a month-long protest. We had our blue and red signs printed at a little shop near Korea University in Anam, where we were all studying for the year. They read:

The world is watching; are you proud?

We were protesting the repatriation North Korean defectors. For months, my friends had been teaching English to North Korean students who’d made it, somehow, to Seoul. We’d learned about the famine and poverty in North Korea. I’d seen a tiny glimpse of it for myself at the Joint Security Area, on the 38th parallel – ie. the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). My friends saw South Korea as a benevolent, faultless player in this and the USA as their ally, while surrounding socialist states were the big bad wolf.

We made little difference to the protest. It had taken us so long to find that we only made it for the final few hours. The whole thing was already on the Korean news – several people had been sitting in a tent outside the embassy for weeks, there were people on hunger strike, and suddenly four white foreigners show up? We did get our faces and voices on the news, little clippings of interviews in English, that many people probably didn’t understand. We were just the token white people (hopefully) adding a minor spike to the viewership on this story. We heard nothing of it after that, and we all left the country a month or two later.

Now, I only hear North Korea mentioned for two reasons: 1) A few of my new undergraduate students speak Korean because they are from Northern Chinese towns very close to the border; 2) Ex-pats who work here semi-illegally have to go on regular visa-runs outside China, and Pyongyang is quickly becoming a cheap and easy option.

It is not as though the danger has gone away. But, rather, information about North Korea is restricted to propaganda. The communist dictatorship seems to have begun to think about how the rest of the world views North Korea. I wonder if our views of North Korea will change?

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