For people who know my mother, they know she is an amazing trailblazer who established a center for Korean immigrants — and is also a somewhat difficult woman. The two probably go hand in hand, like where the fresh water of a river meets the saline of the sea, impossible to separate out which is which, the currents and proportions are always shifting.
With the end of World War II in 1945, the Korea she was living in was liberated as a colony of Japan. Though Korea was naturally supposed to become “free and independent,” the U.S.partitioned Korea at the 38th parallel and itself occupied theSouth. My mother was fourteen and living in what was nominally North Korea, and a few months later fled to the south. But not of her own choice: she was sent by her mother to accompany a widowed aunt. After trekking across a mountain, in the middle of the night, they dashed across the heavily fortified border, each with a baby on their backs, and somehow managed not to get shot.
A refugee in Seoul, my mother had barely gotten her bearings as a freshman at the prestigious Ewha College when she, like the rest of the city, heard the noise of the guns and tanks descending from the North, and the Korean War began. She would never graduate from Ewha.
The U.S. Eighth Army recruited students from Ewha to prepare medicine packets for troops. This led to various flukes of fate and contact that brought her to America, where she married my father, another North Korean, and made a new family. There were more hardships to come.
I condense these early years to give you an outline of who my mother is and what she’d been thru leading up to 2009, when I made a decision — that many said was inadvisable — to take her along on an academic trip bringing college students to North Korea, where I had been invited as faculty advisor.
Two months before we depart, North Korea launches a long-range ballistic missile as both test and provocation. This saber-rattling unnerves Jim, the other faculty leader, who drops out, as do a number of student participants. The State Department correspondingly warns us that travel to North Korea may be dangerous and advises against it. We are down to a handful of participants.
A month before we depart, we are given long lists of things not to do.
Don’t bring in Bibles — or porn.
No talking to civilians without permission.
No taking pictures without permission.
The obvious: never even appear to disrespect the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, or any images thereof. The west mistakenly calls North Korea a communist regime. It is not. He is worshipped as a god, the regime’s official flower is the Kim Jong Ilia. All citizens, at the risk of severe punishment, have to wear a pin with his likeness on it whenever they are in public. An Australian who’d absentmindedly put out his cigarette on a newspaper, but it happened to land on Kim Jong Il’s face, was beaten and immediately deported.
One of the traits that comes with my mother is her impulse to do the opposite of what is advised to her, even more so if it is by a loved one. Perhaps it has to do with the primal event of being sent off on an errand when she was fourteen that resulted in her never seeing the rest of her family, ever again.
Even while we are still in China there are forebodings; she eats a jellyfish dish I suggest she skip because she has no spice tolerance. When she starts coughing and gagging, I grab rice (better than water for absorbing the piquant oils) and it’s quickly fixed.
In North Korea, however, things will not be as easily fixable.
As we land at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, the students glance at my mother. I know they hope this “return” by a bona fide North Korean will be emotional. However, my mother wasn’t “home,” she grew up in a village hundreds of miles away. It would be like someone from Fargo repatriated to Washington DC and outsiders wondering why they aren’t more emotional to be home. Further, because Allied bombs destroyed every North Korean City, including Pyongyang, during the war, everything was remade in a Stalinist style. During our trip, the only thing she would recognize is a gourd growing on a fence — and it was a plastic fake at a re-creation of a birthplace of the Great Leader, complete with Abraham Lincolnesque log cabin.
But I am not sure the students are listening. None of them are Korean. They have grown up with a binary: south is good, north is Axis of Evil. In actuality, North and South Korea are both creations of the U.S., which tried to appease and contain the Russians in 1945 by giving them the top half of the Korean peninsula. The tae guk ki, the white Korean flag of what is now South Korea used to be the unified Korean flag, proudly waved in resistance to the Japanese.
We were thus all discombobulated, in a place where, one of the first things North Korean officials did was take our passports “for safekeeping.” But I wasn’t even sure my mother understood the ramifications of what North Korea had become. It was she who quickly broke the rules. We weren’t supposed to call attention to the fact we were Korean — diasporic Koreans from America are the capitalist enemy — and we certainly weren’t supposed to ask about relatives. I hear her ask our guide/minder — in Korean — about our relatives. The guide doesn’t answer, but instead reaches into her purse and asks my mother to swap out an American hundred dollar bill because, she says, it has a pinhole in it; this, I learn later, is a ploy to obtain hard currency using counterfeit money. As an academic group, we grudgingly pay the extortionary fees for the things we were here to see. But we find we are continually plied with electives, and therein comes the split.
The Juche Tower becomes the point of contention. “Juche” ironically means “self reliance,” and is the core of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s philosophy. The Tower is the centerpiece of Pyongyang. It’s Washington Monument-shaped, made of 25,550 blocks of concrete — one for every day of Great Leader Kim Il-Sung’s life — and is, deliberately, one full meter taller than the Washington Monument. We learned these facts as they herded us into an elevator, demanding fifty dollars in hard cash. About half the people stepped off, including me. The other half, including my mother and one of the student organizers, and the ubiquitous guy taking the souvenir-slash-surveillance video, ascended.
When they came back down, the student leader looked pale. “I kind of can’t believe,” he said. “Your mother…said…” He didn’t finish.
Our schedule was packed, we had to move on. For the rest of the trip, there was only one truly frightening incident, over an unauthorized photo. It was not my mother, and the student was a Chinese national, therefore quickly released back to us.
It was funny to compare our exit to our entrance to North Korea. On the way in, every bit of our luggage was scrutinized for contraband, students were pulled out of line to be checked for swine flu. Now, zero airport security. I peered to see what the official was monitoring on the vintage vacuum tube computer monitor: she was playing solitaire. In the air, the flight attendants did not require us to put on seatbelts, nor they take the slightest interest in our tray tables or electronic devices. There weren’t even doors on the overhead compartments, luggage fell out when we hit turbulence. We were really free.
Once back in China, I felt a bruising sense of relief. Like grass after a stone has been rolled away. I was realizing how much of a weight I’d carried, worrying about bringing my mother on this trip, especially since the State Department had warned us one more time that we would be without embassy or consulate to appeal for help.
Not that long after, several Americans, including a college student named Otto Warmbier, were arrested in North Korea while on tourist trips not that different from ours.
Also later, we received the state-produced video. Including the footage from atop the Juche Tower. In it, my mother is loudly denouncing Kim Jong Il: “He is a madman!” — you can see the student leader panicking and making the international “shhhh!” sign.
I honestly don’t know why she and I weren’t immediately jailed, given that calling Kim Jong Il a madman at the top of the Juche Tower is arguably even worse than Otto Warmbier’s crime of trying to steal a propaganda poster as a souvenir. With incontrovertible evidence of our video, I know it’s only because the regime is so fantastically whimsical — President Clinton had days earlier visited Pyongyang pleading the release of some American journalists who’d be caught sneaking into North Korea from China, so official spirits were high — this might have been the one thing that allowed us to proceed onto the plane, and not be pulled out of line, as what happened to Otto Warmbier, just as he about to board the plane home.
“I can’t believe you did that,” I can’t help blurting, while watching the video with my siblings. My mother gives me a stony look as if to say, “You can’t tell me how to be Korean.” Respect for elders in Korean culture is absolute. So when Otto Warmbier the college student is repatriated — but dead from the abuse during his incarceration, I feel a volcanic anger building, and I want to scream, “That could so easily have been us!” But I don’t.
People long for clear narratives, but reality isn’t like that.
For Koreans of my parents’ generation who grew up with years of unrelenting chaos and destruction, a new word was needed: 이산가족 — “divided and scattered families.” It refers to families separated by the border. But for me, American-born, the shadow of this division lives on between my mother and me, where the line between anger and love is surprisingly thin.