By Pak Gee-na, Shin Hyo-jae, Choi Ye-jin, Kim So-jung, Shim Ha-eun
While a shadow has been cast over April’s historic meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas by volatile North Korea-U.S. relations, Ewha Voice is delving into reactions on campus to recent developments on the peninsula. In this issue, we reveal how South Korea’s university community and ordinary citizens are supporting North Koreans in their words, actions and academic research.
Students’ take on April’s talks with North Korea
On April 27, South Korean president Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met at the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone between the two countries. Topics of global importance such as denuclearization and cessation of hostilities were discussed, with positive sentiments from both sides. There was high global attention for the high-level talks that were held after eleven years. The global community has faced threat as North Korea continued its development of nuclear weapons. The sudden mention of a cessation of hostilities was unexpected, given that the two Koreas have been in armistice for over 60 years.
Plans for North Korea-U.S. talks have been progressing less smoothly. U.S. President Donald Trump wrote to Kim to cancel the summit, late last week, though at time of going to print, work was still underway to salvage the arrangements for the two leaders’ June 12 meeting in Singapore. Despite doubts that the summit will take place, many Korean students still hope for a peaceful solution to the animosities on the Korean peninsula.
“While the success of the 2018 interKorean summit depends on future developments, I believe that the summit itself is tremendously meaningful in the sense of the relationship between the two Koreas,” said Baek Seo-hyun, a junior of Chung-ang University. “The greatest achievement of the summit is that it created a positive atmosphere for future discussion but other than that, the content discussed in the summit will take a longer time to be processed for a practical outcome.”
Though the summit generated much interest, numerous articles and surveys have shown that Korean university students tend to be indifferent to North Korean issues, such as peace and reunification. According to a Seoul National University poll in 2017, just over 41 percent of Koreans in their 20s are in favor of reunification.
“Since the two former [South Korean] governments did not play a significant role in developing relations with the North, students’ interest could have naturally decreased,” Baek added. “The reason behind the lack of discussion of reunification in the recent summit could be that recovering the relationship with the North is more important for now.”
Giving a more international perspective, Swedish exchange student at Ewha, Ellen Smolander, said: “I don’t think [Korean students] are indifferent…I just think that because it’s something that is dealt with on such a daily basis, it’s not something students will [feel the need to] rally or act on.”
Smolander added that age may also be a factor, in that the older generation, born closer to the Korean War might be more passionate about the issue than the younger generation.
Another exchange student at Ewha from Taiwan, Ching-Yu, Du added on about the reunification of Korea. “Although they are genetically the same race, these two countries have been separated for such a long time, there are going to be a considerable number of troubles if they do reunify,” she said. “For betterment of relations between the two Koreas, the government should dedicate to educating their people about differences in language, culture, economic systems, and mindsets.”
She also added that reunification of families separated by the Korean War would serve as a good start for improving relations between North and South Korean.
Missionary brings joy to North Koreans at home
Missionary Kim Joy founded a living community where she cares for 11 North Korean girls aged from 16 to 25.
“The reason I created “Woori Home” [which means “our home” in Korean] was to aid the girls settle down in Korea and to teach them ways to help others once they return,” said Missionary Kim, who believes that her North Korean guests may return to their homes if reunification occurs. “I wanted them to feel at home here.”
Kim first took in two North Korean sisters into her house in Seoul in September 2013, after having sent them letters and gifts when they were living in a different country that they had fled to from North Korea.
Although Kim did not give details about their journey from North Korea to protect their privacy, she said she stepped in to help the girls when she learned that they were in danger in 2012.
“They were young with a bright future ahead. I decided to bring them in so that they could continue their studies here,” Kim said. “As they could not fly with me [because they didn’t have the correct documents], they took a boat.”
“Woori Home” then started with a contract to house students from a school attended by North Koreans. As more students moved in, Kim gained a formal paper legalizing the home as a living community.
“Although, I do know most of the background of the girls, once they come, I do not force them to open up. I give them time to adjust and tell me their stories naturally,” said Kim. “Not all come from families that had a rough life in North Korea. Most came because they wanted to study more, earn a living or to escape from forced marriages.”
According to Kim, the North Korean girls’ staying in her home decided to leave in search for better opportunities. “They hear things from others who tell them that they just have to work one year for them to support their families,” Kim said. “Carried away by the rumors, they escape by boat to another country.”
Many girls have stayed at Kim’s home since 2012. Though Kim keeps her house open to them, she lets her young guests make their own decisions as they forge a new life in South Korea. Kim mentioned one memorable guest who came to her home in 2015.
“She didn’t live a peaceful life in North Korea nor the country she had moved to [before coming to Seoul],” said Kim. “When she started school, she met some wrong friends. Influenced by them, she wanted to live on her own. I was worried, but I didn’t stop her as I wanted to give her freedom. After a few months, we met up and while crying she asked if she could come back. So, I took her back in. Not long after, she ran away again but I didn’t do anything. Even though we keep in contact now, I still worry about her.”
Kim mentioned that the reunification of the two Koreas cannot be fixed through government actions alone, stressing the importance of information exchange between people.
“Reunification is a fun thing,” she said. “I believe that the first step to reunification is helping the North Korean defectors around us. I want people to understand that reunification is not just a political issue. It is also about cultural understanding.”
Club helps North Koreans put hands around each other’s shoulders
Since 2012, Ew ha Womans University has been supporting North Korean students. One of its support projects is Eokkaedongmu, which translates as “arms around each other’s shoulders.” It provides scholarships and tuition fees to North Korean students at Ewha. It also offers English education at YBM academy as North Korean students have hard time learning English. The students can adjust to campus life more easily through new one-on-one mentorships for freshmen provided by graduate students.
“Since the school supports the expensive fees, I applied for an English program at YBM academy,” said a North Korean sophomore student at Ewha, majoring in business administration. “I’m satisfied with this program because they consider our English abilities when choosing teaching materials and testing.”
The North Korea beneficiaries of support project also formed their own exclusive club in late March, naming it Eokkaedongmu after the project in solidarity with Ewha. This club aims to encourage friendships between North Korean students at Ewha. Senior students can share advice on computer literacy, on writing reports and presentations and on general school life with freshmen.
“There is a group chat where only North Korean students at Ewha are invited,” she said. “I joined since I wanted that kind of friendship club.”
Members of the newly established Eokkaedongmu club have already taken a field trip together.
“Communication among us is now more active,” she said. “Although there are many ways to get information on supporting and exchange programs, through Eokkaedongmu, we can share information more easily.”
The student added that the club has debated opening to South Korean students, too.
“I personally want to open the door to South Korean students, but there are a lot of North Koreans who don’t want to,” she said. “We conducted a poll on the club’s open-door plan but the result was a tie. I understand those who don’t want to accept South Korean students as members. There are people who don’t wish to disclose the fact that they’re North Korean.”
Moreover, the student shared her expectations of the relationship between North Koreans and other students. “I look forward to an atmosphere where I can freely say that I’m from North Korea,” she said. “Whenever I say I’m from North Korea, many Ewha students say that they didn’t even know there were North Koreans at Ewha. I hope there can be less wariness and distance between North and South Korean students.”
Professor Kim shines a light on North Korean rights issues
Kim Seok-hyang is director of Ewha’s Institute of Unification Studies and a professor of the Department of North Korean Studies. While most North Korea scholars focus on the geopolitics and economy of the regime, Kim focuses on the rights and daily life of North Korean citizens.
Trained in sociology, it was not until Kim wrote her doctorate thesis that she became interested in North Korea, by exploring the Juche ideology, North Korea’s philosophy of self-reliance.
“There are not too many North Korean Studies professors in Korea, but even amongst them the vast majority have a background in political science,” Kim said. “We must consider North Korean rights issues alongside geopolitical issues such as denuclearization. We have the duty to inform people around the world about our problems, and to not keep this issue locked away. Consider the Holocaust. We do not share any common background with Jewish people but we still have an interest and continue dialogue on it, because it fundamentally comes down to the rights of man.”
Kim gave examples of the human rights abuses in North Korea including detailed accounts of abductees and prisoners of the Korean War who were detained in North Korea. For instance, when the Japanese colonial era ended in 1945, the Japanese administration faced a dilemma. The Japanese did not wish to pay the return expenses for these Koreans, but did not want them remaining in Japan. At this time, Kim Il-sung was in need of laborers.
“Japan and North Korea’s interests overlapped well,” Kim explained. “The Japanese Red Cross declared that it would send the Koreans on their land to the North Korean Red Cross on humanitarian grounds. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was their intermediary, and the South Korean government was helpless and weak. However, as soon as the ship reached Wonsan Port in North Korea, the prisoners knew they had been misled, seeing the starving people.”
Kim said that it is possible that the ICRC was unaware of the full situation at the time. However, the ICRC has never announced an official position on the matter, and there has been little discourse on North Korean rights to spark such a discussion.
“Our duty now is to work hard to express our interest in these issues, by opening up dialogue and learning about our history,” she said. “People in power, such as our president should communicate their opinions as the first steps to work on rights issues.”