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January 2009

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A Journey Home: Visiting North Korea

by Kei Fischer

My mother’s ethnic heritage is relatively unheard of in the United States. She is ethnically Korea, but was born in and grew up in Japan. Her mother came to Japan when she was 10 years old with her mother from Wonson, a port city in the northern region of Korea, so that they could find a new life. Her father came from Cheju island, off the southern coast of Korea, also in search of a job, when he was only 17. When they came to Japan, they came as Japanese nationals, because Japan had occupied Korea. Many Koreans were also forced to come as laborers in Japan. In 1945 when the occupation ended, the over 600,000 Koreans that stayed in Japan became zainichi: permanent resident aliens without a country. Upon Korea's division, most took on South Korean nationality, but some, like my grandmother, refused to declare sides.

My mother grew up in post-war Japan, not speaking any Korean, because her father was afraid she would be discriminated against. Therefore, my mother has always carried an alienated sense of identity, both literally and metaphorically, not feeling Korean or Japanese enough most of her life. That sense was passed down to my sister and me: both of us being biracial zainichis with US citizenship. With our mother’s family residing over 5,000 miles away and our own mother not knowing much about our Korean heritage, I was left to learning about Korean culture and language through library books and college courses. However, you can only learn so much through books. My desire to visit North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, was personal: I wanted to find a connection to the land and the heritage that I stood to lose if I did not take the initiative to visit. I wanted to see the home of my grandmother, meet the people who might share a similar laugh, and eat the food my ancestors grew up on.

I visited North Korea in July of 2008 as part of a delegation called DEEP (DPRK Exposure and Education Program). To prepare for our trip, we met biweekly to read up on Korean history and be exposed to an alternative perspective of North Korea. I began to view North Korea in a different light. I read about guerillas in the north fighting for independence from Japan—fighters who, after World War II, prevented North Korea from being dominated by U.S. capitalism. Instead, North Korean revolutionary socialist ideals called for equality, self-reliance, and justice for the poor and oppressed.

I went to the north with a delegation of seven Korean Americans, two Korean Canadians and one other person who was also of zainichi Korean heritage. Our delegation was a diverse mixture of backgrounds, but we all held a desire to learn more about our northern half of the homeland. As our small plane began to descend onto Pyongyang Airport, my zainichi sister and I gazed upon the green land we were approaching. Our eyes welled up with tears. I am seeing a piece of land, I thought, that my mother has never seen – land that my grandmother lived on as a child –land closed because of a war. It was an overwhelming experience, but one I did not take for granted. I was here, I began to realize, to foster a relationship between Koreans in the north and the rest of the world and in doing so, to participate in a decades-old movement to end the Korean War and to reunify the peninsula.

The next two weeks changed my life. Not only were we greeted with the warmest embrace, much like that between long lost relatives, but we were asked time and again to recall what we saw in the north and to share that with the world. There was an amazing air of pride in the north’s revolutionary history, which was evident in the beautiful monuments dedicated to guerilla fighters, the intricate mosaic murals created with messages of resistance to US imperialism, and the historic sites delicately preserving what was left after the destruction of war. One delegate noted how amazing it was to see such monuments with faces that resembled hers. It made me sad to realize that my grandfather could not be openly proud of his Korean background in Japan. But, it gave me hope because as a third generation zainichi, I was restoring that connection to Korea.

As delegates, we were privileged to visit the demilitarized zone, the 38th parallel, and actually pay witness to how unnatural and cold the area was. We also visited the Sinchon memorial site where tens of thousands of Korean civilians, including women and children, were brutally murdered during the Korean War. We also experienced a more modern side to North Korea. We spent time at a flourishing cooperative farm where some youth farmers gave us a tour and showed us their small but clean living quarters. We visited babies and female patients at the maternity hospital in Pyongyang, where care varied from prenatal services to breast cancer treatment, all of which were free services. We took a short trip on their subway system, which was thoughtfully decorated with mosaic murals and floral-like chandeliers and with trains, we were told, that always ran on time.

Although the technology, buildings, transit systems, and hospital tools may not be cutting-edge, North Korea is not a place of despair and hopelessness. The famine in the mid-1990s was undeniably horrible but the North Koreans did their best to press on. If we in the U.S. truly want to help, we must focus on officially ending the Korean War and supporting the reunification of the country. North Korea feels the same. Everywhere we went, there were signs for tongil or reunification. We were repeatedly asked to send the message of tongil to people in our countries. North Korea wants peace on the Korean peninsula and has made concrete steps with South Korea towards that end.

As a part of our agreement to participate in the DEEP delegation, we were asked to conduct a report back of our experience. I also plan on continuing to talk to as many people as I can to simply get that negative image of North Korea out of people’s minds. The push for reunification cannot happen until we feel we can work with the people of North Korea. The people we met and the stories that were told were of a dignified, thoughtful, and genuine people.

Our bus ride back to the airport was a solemn one. We had all formed bonds with our guides, driver, and English translators, and we were not ready to go home. Inspired to share with our North Korean hosts what was in my heart, I read from my journal: “Coming to North Korea, I feel 100% accepted for the first time in my life, regardless of my ignorance of Korean language, history, and culture. I have learned to be proud to be Korean and that is a gift I will always cherish. You have inspired me to learn more about my heritage and to teach my family about what I learn. I finally have a homeland and I look forward to the day when my mother can return ‘home’ to one united Korea, her heart swelling with pride.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Nodutdol eNews.
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Nodutdol eNews is the monthly e-mail newsletter of Nodutdol.Through grassroots organization and community development, Nodutdol seeks to bridge divisions created by war, nation, gender, sexual orientation, language, classes and generation among Koreans and to empower our community to address the injustice we and other people of color face here and abroad. Nodutdol works in collaboration with other progressive organizations locally, nationally and internationally as part of a larger movement for peace and social change.

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