Thursday, June 29, 2017

"Going to Korea." "Which one?"

Kaeseong, North Korea, as seen from the South Korean border.
(From Wikimedia Commons.)
Over the past couple of months, as I've been getting ready to head to South Korea for the year, I've come across a number of people whose main concern for my well-being is about the other Korea: the North. I get it: it has been in the news a lot lately. Another round of missile launches, of nuclear tests, of both the North Koreans and Secretary Tillerson rattling their sabers—it tends to lodge in people's minds. There was the UVA student, Otto Warmbier, who was released from North Korean imprisonment in a coma and died shortly after returning to the U.S. And every once in a while, there's another headline saying that war on the peninsula is inevitable, et cetera.

But I've also been surprised by the number of times that I've said I'm going to Korea for the year, and people ask me, "Not North Korea, right?"—as if any American ever goes to teach English in North Korea for the year, as if any Korean-American in their right mind would go there on purpose, as if one can simply foxtrot across the border and be back in Seoul for afternoon tea. I'm shocked that people on one hand seem to think of the North as a living dystopian hellscape, and on the other seem to know so little about the situation that they think it's simply another fun exotic destination.

This is part of a phenomenon I've noticed a lot over the past couple of years, since delving into Korean culture more deeply. Call it Southern erasure: the relative inattention or marginalization of South Korea in the American imagination compared to the North. I'd go so far as to say that South Korea's single biggest public relations problem in the U.S. is North Korea. If you go to even a very good American bookstore—I think of Kramerbooks in Washington, D.C., or Raven Used Books in Boston—you find a section for books on East Asia, mostly China and Japan, with around half a shelf of books on Korea. Of that half-shelf, almost all the books will be about North Korea or the Korean War. There might be one or two books on the South, if you look hard enough.

If you ask the average American on the street, especially an American over the age of thirty, what comes to mind when they hear "Korea," I'm sure it's images of the North: starving children, military parades, one or another member of the Kim family. And this makes total sense—compared to the South, the North dominates news coverage, book publishing, and film. Things have changed somewhat, at least among younger Americans, since the transformation of (South) Korean music, TV, movies, food cosmetics—and bit by bit its literature—into a global presence. Still, even now, even among many people my own age, the word "Korea" doesn't conjure images of pop stars or clear skin or bulgogi tacos. It makes people think of the DPRK and ICBMs.

Let me make clear that North Korea, as a calamity of human rights violations, famine, and political violence affecting 25 million people, deserves every amount of attention it can get. There are lots of good people doing important work to make sure that the stories of defectors and survivors get told, seen, shared. But the prominence of the North seems to outcompete the South for space in the minds of ordinary Americans at most turns, as if there's only room for one Korea, so that what Korea and its culture simply mean to those people is: hostility, Communism, dictatorship, nuclear weapons, suffering, poverty—without acknowledging fully that North Korea is the aberration, the tragedy, and there's a vision of a country with a more powerful and positive manifestation of the same cultural tradition, a culture of tremendous intrinsic interest, right next door.

I suppose that if I could do anything about it, I'd insist that for every story on North Korea, news organizations should run a story on South Korea: its political system, its economics, its culture, its history. Or, for that matter, on the history of Korea before its partition in the early Cold War. For now, though, I simply continue to tell people: No, I'm not going to North Korea—that's not even really possible. I'm going to the South.

(The required pro forma statement: These views are entirely mine and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.)

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