Fears of a Foreignor Living in Seoul, South Korea

This article appeared as Editor’s Pick on Salon.com in 2010.



tanding on the edge of winter on days like today, I don’t feel far from North Korea.  This land lacks something in the winter that you can’t place your finger on.  And then you realize what it is. It’s color.


The gray of the mountains is only a slightly deeper shade than that of the sky.  Identical apartment buildings standing high in clusters provide only a subtle contrast in their whiteness — dull numbers stamped on the side to distinguish them from all others.  This pale blue morning can’t be much different than the physical reality of the north.  But life here couldn’t be more opposite. North Korea is close in proximity and yet it is as accessible as the Sun.

On my transfer in the subway last night, I searched desperately for a pen.  In my mind, I had something I wanted to write down and after three stores and not seeing any pen for sale, I offered to buy one off a shop keeper.  “Chun won,” I offered her — about $1.  She said no and smiled, refusing my money and pushing the pen into my hand.  I wondered what that pen would get you in North Korea.  I’ve read North Koreans sometimes don’t have the luxury of paper.  I read an account once of a police officer scribbling an inmate’s sentence onto a chunk of wood.

This is the North Korea I’ve thought of the past few mornings when lightening and thunder has startled me awake during the first blue light of the day.  I think about those on the other side who might be experiencing the same weather. I think about the thunder and how it disguised the first shots of the Korean War only 60 years ago.

It’s not fear of war that I feel in those mornings with the thunder. It’s a closeness to those far away; a shared experience with those whose experiences could not be further from my own.

But despite last week’s artillery fire on Yeonpyeong Island, fears of an actual war occurring are futile. Much like the Korean War itself, those fears will get you exactly where you started. A war would devastate the South Korean economy, and so it’s unlikely they will retaliate.

So, it’s not fear of war that I feel in those mornings amidst the thunder. It’s a closeness to those far away; a shared experience with those whose experiences could not be further from my own. Because when you read about North Korea, you start to separate the people from the Party — from their first doubts, to their realization that their reality is a lie. Accounts of defectors  read eerily like Orwell’s 1984 — spouses not trusting each other to their real thoughts, child “heroes” denouncing their parents, people disappearing or being “vaporized” in the middle of the night, never to be heard from again.

Most of what we see of North Korea is from journalists who are only shown Pyongyang, the capital city where the elite and most loyal live.  Living in Pyongyang is the aspiration of many North Koreans, as residents there live the best lifestyle.  In an excerpt from her book, Nothing to Envy, journalist, Barabara Demick, relives one visit there: 

“Floodlights bathed Kim Il Sung and garlands of tiny white lights illuminated the main streets…. Dinner was a multicourse banquet of salmon, crab gratin, lamb, sliced pheasant, and Viennese-style chocolate cakes…. I spoke by telephone to the U.N. World Food Programme’s representative in Pyongyang… who told me “As soon as you guys left, it was pitch dark again.'”

A look into the real North Korea is manipulated and stifled by the government seeking to improve its image. But some North Koreans are risking their lives to provide footage of the voices the government doesn’t want us to hear:

Abundance allows you to be human. Deprivation does not.

The redemomination of the wealth discussed in the video refers to a new currency the north issued in 2009.  Food was being sold on the black market and the success of this private, “free market,” was undermining the principles of the government, which should be the sole provider for the people. It was also creating inflation. To counteract this, the government reissued a new currency and placed a limit on how much people could convert of the old one. This depleted savings and led to even more hunger and desperation.

In Nothing to Envy, Demick reports that one of the hardest realities defectors face is the memory of what they did to survive. A North Korean teacher painfully recalls watching one after another of her young students die from ailments caused by starvation, as she did not go hungry. Successful defectors live with the memory that their family most likely starves in a work camp as a result of their decision to defect.  However, south of the DMZ life is much different.  The lights are on and people are heading to work.  Women bob in their high heels and chat over coffee. Men with biased hair, fohawked to one side, carry briefcases and listen to iPods. Perhaps, in all our abundance, we lose something.  But I think back to that woman pushing the pen into my hand, her smile and adamant refusal of money: Abundance allows you to be human.  Deprivation does not.

And that’s what I feel in those mornings amidst the thunder and lightening.  It is not a fear of war because that reality is simultaneously as close and as far away as North Korea itself. It’s just a feeling of fear — that a whole country can live a nightmare to preserve a dream.