Tuesday, April 03, 2007

"Treat them like foreigners, but with respect."

Minding the system?
(Image from Wikipedia)

Such were the words uttered by the principal to volunteer teachers at an independent school in Seoul, South Korea set up for defectors from Kim Jong-il's North Korea.

Implicit in the principal's words is an admission that South Koreans generally don't treat foreigners with respect . . . exceptions being made for Westerners, in my personal experience.

I have this principal's matter-of-fact advice from a Washington Post article by Samuel Songhoon Lee, "Escape From Dear Leader to My Classroom in Seoul" (April 1, 2007), which one of my readers, Conservative in Virginia, linked to in her comment to yesterday's post.

In spite of an unfortunate coincidence in the article's April Fool's Day of publication, and despite some ironies, the article contains practically nothing to joke about. What it offers is a brief glimpse into the minds of students between the ages 15 and 27 who are studying to integrate themselves into South Korean society but find themselves caught between a North Korean conformity that they learned to distrust and a South Korean conformity that doesn't quite trust them:
Facing ostracism from South Korean students, many young North Korean defectors drop out of school. According to a ministry report in 2005, 43 percent of young defectors were attending school, and 29 percent had dropped out of middle and high schools. Almost half of the 198 young defectors still attending school said that they hid their background from classmates, according to a survey by the National Human Rights Commission.

. . .

When their [South Korean] peers ask about their accent -- noticeably different from what's common in Seoul -- most [of these] students [who have defected from the North] say they're from Gangwon Province, in the northeastern part of [South Korea].
They face ostracism not merely for being 'foreign' but also for being defectors during this period of South Korea's "Sunshine Policy" toward the North Korean regime. Many South Korean students, according to Mr. Lee, are not merely indifferent but even hostile because:
[T]hey take a pro-North Korea stance. President Roh Moo Hyun has been passionately calling for the ouster of the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, and a wave of anti-American sentiment is sweeping across college campuses. After eight years of the dubious "sunshine policy," which advocated engagement with rather than containment of the communist north, South Korean public sentiment favors neglecting thousands of North Korean refugees in China and pouring cash and aid into Pyongyang, even with Kim's apparent nuclear ambitions.
Some of Mr. Lee's points don't sound precisely accurate to me. I don't recall President Roh explicitly "calling for the ouster of the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea," and my impression of anti-American sentiment on Korean university campuses is that the surge of such sentiment is over and the receding of this particular 'Korean Wave' has begun.

The article, however, is fascinating for its revelations:
At a small restaurant in late February, my student and I ate spicy noodle soup and stared at a huge TV showing the extravagant celebration of Kim Jong Il's 65th birthday in Pyongyang. Thousands of smiling people paraded across the North Korean capital and saluted their Dear Leader.

"I was once there," my student said. "But even as I danced and smiled, I knew of a better life outside." She said this matter-of-factly and turned to stir her tea. Her search for that better life had brought her here, at age 13, to Seoul, and to my English class at a special school for young North Korean defectors.
They know of a better life because a black market economy in the North has brought contraband radios to North Koreans and is even changing children of the North Korean elite. Mr. Lee tells of one student who grew up in the North and had a single, serious aim in life -- until he obtained a radio:
In North Korea, he knew exactly what he wanted to do: become a [soldier] . . . in the North Korean army. He dreamed of killing as many Americans and South Koreans as he could. In his childhood home, a framed photo of . . . Kim[, the North Korean leader,] was prominently displayed on the living room wall . . . . [H]e would have marched off as [a soldier] . . . if he hadn't received a black-market Sony Walkman for his 15th birthday and listened to forbidden South Korean radio frequencies.

Late at night, muffling the scratchy signal so as not to get caught, he tuned in to the news, learning that much of what he was taught all day in school was a lie. "We learned that the Americans were constantly trying to invade us. But from the South Korean news, I learned that it was the other way around. But my classmates truly believed in what we were learning. They were like robots."
Robots, perhaps, but I wonder how many others were listening to broadcasts from abroad and hiding their views under a veil of conformity. I wonder if anyone up there in the North thoroughly believes in the system. Even the very worst representatives of the North's totalitarian system appear to suffer self-doubt, as the remarks by one student . . . perhaps imply:
[This student] grew up a few minutes away from one of North Korea's . . . notorious political prisons . . . . Because food and alcohol are scarce in the countryside, the prison guards went to . . . [this student's] house for libations. "They always drank heavily," he told me. "And when they got drunk, they would mumble about how sorry they felt for what they did to prisoners."
These are the hardened gulag guards, mind you, so if they are expressing doubts, then many other North Koreans must be doing so as well.

And that provides grounds for hope.

UPDATE: Those interested in other bloggers' reactions will want to go to DPRK Studies for the views of Richardson, who was similarly struck by the principal's remark about respect.

UPDATE 2: One of my readers, who emailed Mr. Lee and learned that the principal's words had been edited for length and thus unintentionally distorted, has posted a comment with the original Korean and a translation.

UPDATE 3: At the request of Samuel Songhoon Lee, who called me today (April 6, 2007), I have edited this blog entry in the interest of security for the students' families who still reside in North Korea.



At 9:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I got a kick out of that headlining quote, too. It would be interesting to know what the man actually said in Korean. I suspect what he meant was, "Don't assume they understand everything, but don't treat them like dummies either."

At 9:28 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

If you go to the article in the Washington Post, you'll find Mr. Lee's email address, so you could perhaps get him to tell you.

If you do find out, then report back to us here, for I was also wondering about the Korean (not that I would understand it).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I emailed him last night and haven't heard a response yet.

At 9:56 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Perhaps he's getting a lot of emails in response.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I emailed the writer, Samuel Songhoon Lee, asking for clarification and the original quote in Korean, if possible. Mr. Lee responded promptly. He acknowledged that the quote had caused a stir among both expats and Korean-Americans. He explained that the original article was edited for length, and thus, the quote became distorted. He has given permission for me to post the original quote on blogs:

“애들을 외국인 처럼 대하세요, 그들이 우리들과
다른점을 인정하고 존중해주면서요”

I humbly offer a translation:

“Treat the kids like foreigners. Acknowledge their differences and give them respect.”

There are two pages of comments accessible at the end of the article. Mr. Lee posted two long responses on the second page of the comment thread.

At 4:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Sonagi, that puts matters in a different light.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sonagi, thank you again for taking the time to get in touch with Mr. Lee. I do have to wonder, however, if it’s not a case of ‘did I say that out loud?’ and that the ‘correction’ is not more of a revision. That’s only a hunch, for which I admit I have no proof beyond having experienced the earlier description as an expat in Korea far more than the new.

At 8:17 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm willing to accept the author's word that the principal spoke the more nuanced statement, but I'd nevertheless maintain that the misquote accurately expresses the problem that many foreigners encounter in Korea, namely, a lack of respect -- but such is not unique to Korea (as my post of April 4th makes clear).

Jeffery Hodges

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