New York-based community organizer Meejin Richart traveled in August to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the socialist northern half of the Korean peninsula, as part of a delegation of Korean Americans. They went through the Korean Exposure and Education Program-DPRK (KEEP-D), a program of Nodutdol for Korean Community Development, whose mission is to increase awareness of and strengthen the global movement for peace and reunification on the Korean peninsula. Workers World reporter Greg Butterfield spoke to Richart about her experience.
WW: How did you get involved with the KEEP program?
MR: I first heard about KEEP back in 2010 when I was living in Seattle and working on Korean diaspora issues. I went on KEEP-R [to the Republic of Korea, the capitalist south], where we learned about the South Korean progressive movement. In New York, I became politicized in a much deeper way and decided to go on KEEP-D [for DPRK].
I was encouraged to go by an organizer who I worked with in the anti-police-brutality movement. Since coming to New York, I’ve been organizing around police violence and broader pan-Asian community issues, and I wanted to focus again on issues that affect the Korean diaspora.
The delegation was 14 people, plus six folks who were translators, guides and a driver from the DPRK. We were a very diverse group with lots of identities — adoptees, queer, trans, biracial, and an age spectrum from the early 20s to the mid-50s. There were lots of different experiences and language abilities. It was a lot to negotiate. But we realized on the trip that this is a necessary negotiating and reconciliation process within the Korean-American diaspora to work toward tongil [peaceful reunification].
We were in the DPRK for 11 days, but the entire trip lasted about three weeks. There are no direct flights from the U.S. We had to fly first to Beijing. Getting there was a learning experience in itself.
I was very surprised to meet tour groups and tourists on our flight. For example, there was a group of Zainichi students: ethnically Korean high school students living in Japan. They came for a four-week musical program of traditional Korean music — dancing, drumming, flute and so on. There were other folks from the Korean diaspora, but also Australians and Europeans. For the first few days, everyone tends to go to the same historic sites, so we kept running into the same tour groups from our flight.
WW: What kind of experiences did you have with people living in the DPRK?
MR: The first group meeting we had was with a group of farmworkers, about 30 folks on a collective farm. They were members of the [Kim Il Sung Socialist] Youth League. Our bus arrived late, and eight people had been waiting a long time with flowers to greet us at the junction of the road. A farmer asked if we wanted to pick eggplants. We walked down into a muddy field even though we were wearing professional dress!
We had the opportunity for a lot of one-on-one conversation. There were two questions we were asked a lot. The first was whether women still experience discrimination in the U.S. The other was, what do people in the U.S. think of the DPRK?
WW: That must have been uncomfortable.
MR: It was a difficult conversation. It made me sad that we had to say the perception is not good. But we also explained that the reason we were there was to bring back stories about the reality of the country.
People were very receptive. As someone who doesn’t speak Korean, I was told over and over, “Thank you for coming, doing all of the required learning must have taken a lot of effort.” That to me was the biggest and most important part of the journey — the idea that “we need everyone for tongil.”
WW: As a Korean American, did it feel like you were an outsider looking in?
MR: It was much more of a homecoming. In the DPRK there is an ideology of “Korea is one” or “Chosun eun hanada.” That’s about wanting the Korean diaspora to come and participate in the life of the home country and be united.
It was powerful and so different from my experience in Seoul on the 2010 trip. Despite the fact that we were learning about the South Korean progressive movement, and obviously some folks were more welcoming, overall I felt like a foreigner and not very welcome. In the DPRK it was completely the opposite: open embrace and loving arms.
WW: I understand there was a lot of singing.
MR: I really tried to prepare myself before the trip. Each of us on the delegation was able to choose a song to memorize and have that be our song. In Korea, they say “my 18” — when that song comes on karaoke, you’re really good at it and can hit all the notes.
When we were in Korea, there was talking, meetings, eating, and then our hosts would always get up and do their songs. Which was kind, to put themselves out there first — but then to follow them was a little bit hard and kind of embarrassing!
In the U.S., there is a performance element to singing in front of a big group of people, but in Korea it’s much more about sharing with each other. People start singing along after you make it through the first verse.
Everyone just knew all the songs that we had taken so long to learn. We asked our guides and translators where they had learned these songs. They said in school or with family at home. Singing is very much a part of the culture.
For me, not speaking the language, coming with a song that I had learned was also a way to connect. My song was “Blue Sky of My Home Country.” The lyrics are kind of nostalgic: “When I was young, I lived in my home country and I was happy, I looked up at the blue sky. Now I look up and see the same blue sky and I wish for how it was before.”
There were songs about the desire for reunification. To say it is one thing, but to put it in musical form is very powerful.
WW: As someone raised in the United States, what was the most striking thing you experienced about the U.S. role in the division of Korea?
MR: We had done study sessions prior to the trip, so we had learned a lot about the role of the U.S. But for me it became very clear in two places: when we visited a war memorial/museum and at the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
The Sinchon Massacre Museum has 16 rooms devoted to the memory of people who were part of the Revolution. Tens of thousands of people were murdered in this very small county by the U.S. military. A lot of them were women because much of the revolutionary leadership came from Korean women.
We saw photographs that were taken at the time: women tied up, tortured, mutilated. I asked how the photographs came about, and a woman who was showing us around explained they were taken by U.S. soldiers because they thought it was something to be proud of. It was striking and really upsetting. We saw bones recovered from mass graves, of women who were pregnant or holding their children in their arms. It really hit home – these were U.S. soldiers doing this to Korean people.
Being Korean American, having so many friends who also have family members who live in the north, I knew some of their family members could have been killed, and we’ll never know. It was a very heavy day and also helped inspire me to act upon my return to the U.S., not just reunification work but on a larger scale about the cost of war and U.S. imperialism.
WW: The perception in the U.S., if people remember the Korean War at all, is that it’s relegated to the distant past. But it’s a living reality for people in Korea today.
MR: Especially in the north. At the DMZ, there is literally a line dividing the peninsula. It was heavy to be there with our Korean comrades. One of them was a young woman, and it was her first time being at the line. She was really upset. As a Korean American, I felt like this was my home country, but I don’t have to be there every day. But for someone who lives there, every day of their life is affected. In school, she is learning songs about the desire for this line not to exist. Her breaking down was a really powerful moment for us, and again reminded me of how much work we have to do here.
WW: What did you learn about the DPRK’s policies for war orphans and adoptees?
MR: We met with Hwang Halmoni, a grandmother who was a war orphan. She was born in 1940. War broke out when she was 10 and her parents were killed. She had several siblings. Kim Il Sung, the leader at the time, pledged that the state would take care of the war orphans as if they were its own children. During the war, she and her siblings were sent to a Korean school in China called the Revolutionary School for Children of Bereft Families. China hosted the children until the war had ended and some rebuilding had happened.
She was very well provided for through state-run orphanages. She went on to have a very successful career as a news anchor and had a big family. She was a really gentle, sincere person who came down to meet us on the hottest day at the hottest time of the year. She came in formal dress because, she said, when you meet people who are important you want to come dressed in your best.
There are still state-run orphanages in the north where children are taken care of. If a family member is unable to take care of their child for a while, they can send them to an orphanage until they can take care of them again.
In South Korea today there are also orphanages where people can send their kids. But during the war, orphans were sent away. This created a lack of consciousness in the U.S. and European countries — it became a “humanitarian” effort, sending these children off to families that knew nothing about their country, culture and language.
What started during the war continued, in my opinion, because it was a profitable thing for adoption agencies. There is still a consciousness that persists after so many decades that Korea is a place where orphans are just tossed away.
That was a really moving meeting for me as an adoptee, because for the first time I felt that Korea as a country had not rejected me. It was an issue of different social policies between the north and south.
Nodutdol will hold an event on Nov. 9 in New York City to report back about the trip. There will be food, a short film of the trip and more. Please check the website nodutdol.org for information.