I first unexpectedly met a North Korean defector while studying abroad at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in South Korea during the spring of 2014. I did not know it at the time, but my future interactions with North Korean defectors would forever change the course of my education, professional aspirations, and approach to politics.
Near the end of the semester, our professor invited a former U.S. diplomat specializing in U.S.-DPRK relations to present on North Korea’s ongoing humanitarian crisis and systematic human rights abuses. During the Q&A session, a student poised a question which still rings clear in my ears seven years later, “Has North Korea really not changed at all since the late 90s?” The question itself did not invoke any unique reaction, but the melancholy tone of her voice added a heaviness to the classroom atmosphere. The former diplomat responded in a curt, but sympathetic tone, “No. I am afraid the human rights situation has only worsened under Kim Jong Un.” I spotted our professor giving the student a slight nod, indicating his approval and encouragement as she took a deep breath and spoke, “I am asking because I am from North Korea and I do not know if my friends back home are still alive.” The class went silent. All the South Korean students brandished mixed expressions of fear and confusion, fundamentally torn as they discovered that our classmate was from the enemy state of North Korea.
All I brought to Korea was genuine curiosity and a humble interest to learn, and I was met with kindness from the most unlikely of people.
As one of the only foreigners in the class, I could feel the division of the two Koreas settle within the room, recalling how one male student recently cursed North Korea for, in his words, wasting two years of his life in the South Korean army due to the mandatory conscription law. However, the atmosphere gradually lightened as she explained how and why she fled North Korea for a better life which brought tears to nearly every student in the room. The reunification of the Korean Peninsula is often discussed in terms of complete economic, geographical, and/or political fusion of the two Koreas which seems to drift farther away each year as the gap between them continues to deepen. But at that moment, I believed I witnessed a more attainable, authentic, and humanistic form of reunification between the two Korean peoples: empathy between South Korean nationals and North Korean defectors. Although unaware at the time, that moment forever changed my life.
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