The Red Box: Misunderstandings and Stereotypes about North Koreans
For North Korean refugees, resettling in a new society comes with many challenges. One of these challenges is overcoming the stereotypes about North Korea and the North Korean people.
In the latest episode of The Red Box, our North Korean friends and 2019 LiNK Advocacy Fellows talk about the struggle of of facing stereotypes after resettling in South Korea.
Watch as Jeongyol, Joy, Dasom, and Ilhyeok answer your questions in The Red Box Series!
Read the transcript of this episode below!
All: Welcome to the Red Box!
Are there any misunderstandings about the North Korean people that make you feel uncomfortable?
Joy: When I first came to South Korea, was working part-time at a convenience store. I was still very young and had a very heavy North Korean accent.
In South Korea, when a customer enters the part-time employees don't really greet them. But I used to greet the customers standing and say "Welcome!" so people would ask me where I'm from.
I'd tell them that I'm from North Korea. They'd say "oh really?" After they get their stuff and put them on the counter, they'd asked me if I ever had jjajangmyun or pork in North Korea? They'd ask me these types of questions. Some people ask because they don't know but sometimes they ask questions that insinuate that we were all so poor in North Korea. Not everyone in North Korea is like that. There's people who live well too
Jeongyol: If someone asked me that, I’d tell them I might've lived a wealthier life there [in North Korea].
Joy: So those types of questions made me feel a little uncomfortable.
Jeongyol: A lot of people think like that.
Dasom: People think that all North Koreans are poor, ignorant, and uneducated. People have told me that even though I must have starved and lived poorly in North Korea, I don't look the part.
Maybe some people did or didn't have enough food to eat. There are poor people and there are rich people too. Every country is the same — it’s the same in South Korea too. There are rich, poor, and homeless people in South Korea too. I don't think it's right to judge someone like that. It made me feel very uncomfortable
Jeongyol: When I was in high school, there was a soccer match between North Korea and South Korea. But all of a sudden they asked me which team I'm cheering for. So I was startled by the question.
Should I say I'm cheering for North Korea or South Korea? What's my identity?
Even though I'm living in South Korea as a South Korean citizen, they didn't recognize the fact that I'm also South Korean. That we were the same people.
So at the time I answered, "I'm not cheering for either team. I don't care who wins. I’m just watching the game for fun.” It went over smoothly but afterward I kept thinking about it. But now that I think about it…It wasn't my choice to be born in North Korea.
Jeongyol: I could've been born in the U.S. but somehow I was born in North Korea.
Anyone could've been born in North Korea.
It's not anyone's fault. So from that moment on, I became confident. I am just who I am.
Ilhyeok: I have this older friend from China. During holidays like in January, he'd always ask me if I am visiting my hometown. Whenever he asks me that question, I want to be able to tell him that I'm am going [home] but I can't because I can't go back so I just don’t answer him. When he asked me if I'm going home, I just wished that I could return home one day.
It's heartbreaking not being able to go home.
During Chuseok and New Year's Day, those two holidays are when I miss home the most.
Joy: One uncomfortable question for me was when I was in school or met people was when they asked me why there's no riot or uprising in North Korea. Sometimes people ask because they really don't know but sometimes they insinuate that we're cowards.
And with that viewpoint, they ask why we won't revolt against the government. I try to explain but they still insist and say, ”But you guys still should have done something.” That makes me a little sad.
In North Korea, there's a system of monitoring each other. So if one person says something bad, they'd get reported right away and taken.
Jeongyol: In South Korea there were a lot of civil riots so they ask why we didn't do anything in North Korea.
Joy: But it's a very different situation.
Jeongyol: The system doesn't allow it.
What also made me uncomfortable was if I did something wrong, people would blame it because I'm North Korean.
They say things like, “It's because she's North Korean.” That made me upset. Other people say bad things and make mistakes too. But because of one mistake they say all North Koreans are like that and that I wouldn't know things or be able to do things because I'm from North Korea.
I hated hearing that so I wouldn't tell anyone that I was from North Korea.
The DMZ and North Korea
What Is the DMZ?
The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula that serves as a buffer zone between North Korea and South Korea. The DMZ is a de facto border barrier and divides the Korean Peninsula approximately in half. It roughly follows latitude 38°N (the 38th parallel), the original demarcation line between North Korea and South Korea at the end of World War II. The Demilitarized Zone incorporates territory on both sides of the cease-fire line as it existed at the end of the Korean War (1950-1953), and was created by pulling back the respective forces 1.2 miles along each side of the line.
Upon the creation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) in 1948, the DMZ became a de facto international border and one of the tensest fronts in the Cold War. The DMZ is about 160 miles long and approximately 2.5 miles wide. The truce that ended hostilities was signed here in 1953, but, as an official peace treaty was never agreed to, the two sides have still officially been at war for over sixty years. There are no troops in the DMZ itself, although both sides of the 2.5-mile strip of land separating the Koreas are the most heavily armed in the world.
A Brief History of the DMZ
Even as North Korea and South Korea marched together in a show of political solidarity at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, and a newly combined Korean women's hockey team competed as one nation, there remains one unmistakable reminder of the chasm between the two nations. The DMZ was established in 1953 as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement between the United Nations, North Korea, and China to end the Korean War. In essence, it is a line in the sand that extends the entire 160-mile length of the Korean Peninsula, passing just about 50 miles from the Olympic village in Pyeongchang.
The 38th parallel north was the original boundary between the United States and the Soviet Union’s briefly held administration areas of Korea at the end of World War II. Both the North and South remained dependent on their sponsor states from 1948 to the outbreak of the Korean War. This conflict, which claimed over three million lives and divided the Korean Peninsula along ideological lines, started on June 25th, 1950, with a full-front DPRK invasion across the 38th parallel, and ended in 1953 after international intervention pushed the front of the war back to near the 38th parallel.
The Armistice Agreement for the Restoration of the South Korean State was signed on July 27th, 1953, and resulted in the creation of the DMZ as each side agreed to move their troops 1.2 miles back from the front line, establishing a 2.5-mile wide buffer zone. The Military Demarcation Line (DML) goes through the center of the DMZ and indicates where the front was when the agreement was signed. Owing to this theoretical stalemate and genuine hostility between North and South Korea, large numbers of troops are still stationed along both sides of the buffer zone. Each side holds constant guard against potential aggression from the other side, even 68 years after its establishment. The armistice agreement clearly explains the number of military personnel and what kind of weapons are allowed in the DMZ.
DMZ as a Cultural Site
Borders are usually geopolitical boundaries that mark the legal limits of a nation's sovereignty, and are often of interest to tourists for the meeting of cultures that occur therein, rather than for their divisive functions. The DMZ acts as a unique cultural site for the two Koreas, and this is seen as an attraction for tourists to the region. They recognize borderlands as symbolic cultural landscapes loaded with iconic sites and attractions that reflect the public memory. This memory is often focused on the past, ongoing wars, or territorial conflicts that have formed the border.
Tourism can act as a force of peace, a mechanism that promotes empathy and supports reconciliation processes between nations. In addition to fostering cultural exchange, research suggests that countries with open and sustainable tourism industries enjoy higher levels of peace, economic prosperity, and resilience. However, the highly regulated movement of Korean nationals on both sides of the DMZ usually limits the peace-building opportunities that are traditionally associated with an exchange of culture. This strict control of the border along with the careful curation of museums and war memorials has allowed each side to write its own version of history.
In the area, there are three small conference buildings administered by the United Nations in the Joint Security Area, all painted the international organization's signature blue, while North Korea controls three others. On the North side, a building called Panmon Hall looms, while on the South stands Freedom House, which hosts Red Cross and visitor activities. The Freedom House was intended to be a meeting area for separated families from both countries, but the North declined, fearing that its citizens might defect.
The Security Status at the DMZ
The border between North and South Korea is one of the most heavily guarded stretches of land in the world. The DMZ, littered with scores of mines and barbed-wire fences, is nightmarishly difficult to cross, except the Joint Security Area (JSA). JSA is a special buffer zone inside what is known as the "truce village" of Panmunjom, about 35 miles north of Seoul. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people usually visit the JSA for a chance to see North Korean soldiers standing at attention just dozens of feet away and to officially step into North Korean territory inside a United Nations administered conference room that literally straddles the military border.
A visit there feels like a military theater, with the stern warnings from the South Korean soldiers under United Nations (UN) command not to make gestures at their counterparts. Since demarcation, the DMZ has had numerous cases of incidents and incursions by both sides, although the North Korean government typically never acknowledges direct responsibility for any of these incidents. This can be a highly risky place if mutual respect is not maintained from both sides.
Human Rights and Repression in North Korea
North Korea is one of the world's most repressive states. The government restricts all civil and political liberties for its citizens, including freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion. It prohibits all organized political opposition, independent media, civil society, and trade unions. The government routinely uses arbitrary arrest and punishment of crimes, torture in custody, forced labor, and executions to maintain fear and control across the country. Besides the DMZ, North Korea is a highly controlled country where human rights are ignored.
The international community has continued to press the North Korean government to expand its engagement with United Nations human rights mechanisms, including action on findings of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI). The COI report shows that the country has committed crimes against humanity including extermination, murder, enslavement, imprisonment, rape, sexual violence, forced abortion, and other heinous crimes. The citizens of North Korea require a lot of help and support from the international community in order to attain a better life.
The North Korean people face a brutal and repressive government that isolates them from the world and denies their most basic human rights, but you can help to create change. At Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), we help North Korean refugees escape through a 3,000-mile secret rescue route and empower North Koreans who have reached freedom to be changemakers, advocates, and leaders on this issue. You can help make a difference in the lives of North Korean citizens by learning more about our organization, raising funds, advocating for the people of North Korea, starting a rescue team, or making a donation today!