Though this is clearly a significant issue, and should be treated as such, I am a little sick of the foreign media making it sound like everyone over here is cowering in their bomb shelters, because really...its not like that. Every day I read news articles from CNN and BBC that make things sound significantly more dangerous here than it feels. Yes, North Korea is pledging to retaliate if the US joins South Korea in military exercises in the Yellow Sea. No, their words do not carry much weight. Pyongyang said the exact same thing in July after the US military came over and started running drills after the Cheonan was sunk. As Fox News says in this article, "The North routinely threatens attacks whenever South Korea and the US hold join military drills, which Pyongyang sees as a rehearsal for an invasion." This is not new. But you better believe that every time it happens the media reports it like this is something fresh horror. Moral of the story, Pyongyang talks a really big game, which is almost comically over-dramatic, and everyone can just take a breath. Tell your mom, friend's sister, cousins, and co-workers that I'm fine, I'm not leaving Korea any time soon, and that I always carry my passport on me in case stuff unexpectedly turns bad. And I am familiar with where I have to go in case of evacuation, so no worries.
Now, I am not one to repost political stuff, but I have to say that I was pretty disgusted by Sarah Palin's little "slip" on Glen Beck's radio show last week. While I agree with the many people who excuse it by noting that anyone could accidentally say North instead of South when saying the sentence "Obviously, we have to stand with our North Korean allies" I would like to think that the majority of us would have immediately CORRECTED OURSELVES. Instead Palin blithely sailed onward as the host corrected her. Yes, everyone makes mistakes. But significantly worse that the mistake itself was her unwillingness to recognize it! I mean, come on. Her lack of immediate correction/response leads me to wonder WAS it a mistake? Or does she seriously not know the difference between North and South Korea. I mean, there are just a few small differences in areas like politics, allies, economy, and...oh yeah...EVERYTHING. Gaah. Also many have brought up the point that the rest of us who may have made the mistake aren't running for president or presenting ourselves as policy experts. I think this writer basically says it all in his article. As a resident of South Korea I hope for damn sure that the leaders of ALL nations know the difference between North and South should things turn bad. Anyway, moving on.
While all this craziness gives great coverage to that tiny, insane tyrant, Kim Jong Il, it leaves the appalling violation of human rights that occurs daily in North Korea exactly where it has been for years: firmly in the shadows. I am certain most American's don't really know the extent to which people are suffering in North Korea...I mean I really didn't before coming here. Sure, we all know "North Korea: Dictatorship + Nuclear Weapons = BAD" but while we might know about the government of the north and their interactions internationally, we pay very little attention to the domestic policies of the North Korean government that leave hundreds of thousands of people starving, living in extreme poverty, and/or serving time in concentration camps.
Over the past week I've spent a few days with a North Korean defector named Chung Hyuk. He is a student at the University of Seoul, and is in an English class taught by my friend Andrea. Andrea and I had been friends on Facebook for a while, actually since January when we were supposed to both work on the DHC book project (this was before she had university classes scheduled at the same time and had to give up the project), but we didn't meet until last Saturday. She's a super passionate and inspiring girl, and I'm excited to have finally met her. It is clear that she really cares about Chung Hyuk and is dedicated to getting his story out, and helping him in any way she can.
Chung Hyuk escaped North Korea in 2005 at the age of 18. (Kind of crazy to think that I was disembarking a trip around the world as he was preparing to leave the only life he'd ever known.) He fled the disastrous conditions of North Korea into the disastrous conditions of living in hiding in China. China does not recognize defectors as refugees, and if they are caught they're sent directly back to the North Korean government. Best case scenario, they're sent to prison camps for hard labor. Worst case scenario, they're executed. Chung Hyuk made is way into Mongolia, illegally crossing yet another country's border, where he was then able to seek asylum at the South Korean embassy. It was over six months before he was able to actually come to South Korea and join the over 20,000 North Koreans who have defected here. His story is like that of so many other North Korean refugees- they leave one hell only to find themselves in a whole new, terrible, and dangerous situation. Here's an insane statistic: 80% of women who escape North Korea into China are sold into the sex trade. EIGHTY PERCENT. That is an almost unimaginable number.
Last Thursday I had the opportunity to watch part of a documentary made by a Korean newspaper called the Chosun Ilbo. It followed the journey of one group of defectors as they fled China in hopes of finding a place where they no longer had to live in fear and hiding. This group, including a nine-year-old boy, left northern China and board a train for a 3-day trip down to southeastern China. Once there, they illegally crossed the river border into Laos in the middle of the night. They had to remain silent as their small boat crossed the fast moving water, lest they arouse the suspicion of the guards posted along the riverbanks. Once in Laos, their journey was far from over. They hiked for 18 hours, slipping and sliding up the side of a mountain covered in dense rain forest and down the other. Finally they arrived in Thailand, where they met another guide who drove them the many hours down winding dirt roads to Bangkok. It was only once they entered the compound housing the South Korean embassy that they were safe. Until then they were at the mercy of bounty hunters hired to find and capture those illegally travelling through China, Laos and Thailand. The story was harrowing, for sure; it sounded like something out a movie. But the truth is that people do this every day. They face their fears, and very real risks of imprisonment and death, to seek out a better life. And, thankfully, some are successful.
Chung Hyuk came here and started studying. Even though the North Korean education system leaves a lot to be desired, he worked his butt off and took the South Korean college entrance examination. His scores qualified him to enter the economics program at the University of Seoul. Unprepared for the rigors of South Korean academics (ESPECIALLY in math), school has definitely been a struggle for him. But he is an exceptionally hard worker who is very dedicated to bettering himself. One of the most fascinating things he talked about during the Q&A portion of his speech last week was how difficult it is living in South Korea. I am sure that worldwide, people find themselves in horrible situations and just think "when I get out of here, everything will be perfect." While South Korea is certainly a better situation for him to live in, it is still fraught with challenges: fierce competition for jobs, very little monetary support from the government, discrimination, and an educational system that moves at the speed of light. It is a constant struggle for him, his older brother, and mother (all of whom have defected to South Korea since 2005) to keep their heads above water. They also have constant worry about his other brother who remains in North Korea. They have very little contact with him; when they do need to get in touch the word travels through four or five people. In addition to all of this, Chung Hyuk has a side company, which is actually how I met him. He makes soap.
After arriving in South Korea, he attended a high school for North Korean defectors. The principal of this high school is a pastor who has done extensive work both inside and outside of North Korea, attempting to better the lives of people there. He is friends with the owners of Sem & Soie, an all natural soap/cosmetics/candle manufacturer in Seoul. The company itself deserves recognition, as well as the couple who run it. Headed by a female president, the company was started to provide a sheltered workshop-type atmosphere where people with cognitive disabilities could hold a steady job. They currently employ around fifteen adults with mental disabilities who work there full time to earn a living. The company uses 100% natural ingredients and makes some really great products. They worked out a system with Chung Hyuk, allowing him to come in on weekends and make soap. Any soap that he makes, he is allowed to sell. Chung Hyuk takes the profits from these sales and donates them to help North Koreans escape Kim Jong Il's brutal regime and find another place to settle. Two Sundays ago I had the privilege of helping him make soap, along with Andrea and her friend Sabe.
Soaps ready to be packaged up and sent off.
Soaps as far as the eye can see.
Scents scents scents.
We met way up north at Ssangmun Station before heading out on a little tour of the criss-crossing streets and lane-ways that led us to the unassuming Sem & Soie factory. Nestled on a residential street, the only real clue that it is a factory at all is the wonderful aromas that you can smell from down the street. It smells so fresh and clean! We met the owner and after some prolonged discussion about what scent, color, and shape soap we wanted to make it was time to get to work. Chung Hyuk got the materials all ready and we were off.
The soap mold shapes we decided upon.
Various color choices (we chose the colors of the three bars in the middle- red, pink with red specks, and cream).
Soap making involves a lot of melting and stirring. And then some stirring. And more stirring. All in a clockwise circle. Stirring in a clockwise circle is easy...until someone tells you it can ONLY be clockwise, not counter-clockwise. Then it takes all your concentration just to keep going in the same direction, haha. Various ingredients are melted together, copious amounts of scented oils are added, and the temperature is checked about a million times. Once it has solidified a little, its time to put it into the molds. These silicone molds are really just like the ones you buy to make fun shaped ice cubes. Once we had filled up hundreds of fun shaped impressions with soap, we cleaned up and sent our coolers of soap off to one of the cooling rooms.
Chung Hyuk getting us started.
Our ingredients all set up and ready to go.
Stirring as it was still melting.
Stirring my fully melted soap with food coloring. This one actually turns out to be the cream color! Crazy.
The owner taking her turn stirring (with Chung Hyuk looking on).
Pouring the soap into the molds. I was a master at this step.
Continuing their nearly ceaseless acts of kindness, the owner of Sem & Soie and her husband then treated us to lunch. We had brought food also, which lead to a funny international mod podge- jjajjangmyeon and peanut butter sandwiches, kimchi and Pringles. We also shared some great conversation about the changes that are happening in South Korea and what the future has in store. It was just a really nice way to relax and share our thoughts. Sometimes the communication got a little sticky, but for the most part we were all able to get our thoughts across. It was lovely. After taking some photos and being showered with SWAG (seriously...8 bars of soap, two packages of decorative soap, herbal skin creme, and a deliciously wonderful soy candle) we were on our way.
Posing with the owner's husband, who provided some incredibly thought provoking conversation over lunch.
I am pretty sure I could train my dog Rusty to take a better picture than the woman who took this shot. Out of four pictures, on two cameras, this was the BEST. Aigh.
Chung Hyuk with the owner of Sem & Soie and her husband.
I got to see Andrea and Chung Hyuk again on Thursday (Thanksgiving), when I left school early and met Dana to go hear him speak at the University of Seoul. We trekked all the way up north (and it is a trek...I hate Line 1 AND the Jungang Line) and found our way to the S Cafe. It was really great turn out of people, so that was wonderful. First we watched part of the Chosun Ilbo documentary I mentioned before, and then Chung Hyuk told some of his story through translators. After that the floor was opened for Q&A session which really brought a bunch of information about his past to light. At the end Andrea thanked everyone for coming and sold some soap.
Chung Hyuk speaking at S Cafe at the University of Seoul. Thank you, Andrea, for setting this up.
We will be going back to make some more soap on Saturday, December 11. If you are in Seoul and interested in joining us, please let me know. Chung Hyuk is a quiet, dedicated, nice boy who is a pleasure to meet and help. The more we help him, the more he can help others. And isn't that what the holiday season is all about?
I wanted to share a few short videos that give a bit of background to what I've been saying, or simply underscore some points I've made. The first was made by LiNK, or Liberty in North Korea, an American based North Korean support group. It really made me think when I saw the other day, and it is worth a watch. Plus I really appreciate their message about what you can do to help the situation: get educated, and educate others.
Second is a video that was made in 2007. While it is slightly out of date (the numbers are only higher now), it gives good insight into what it is like to live in China after escaping North Korea.