What We Can Imagine Now: Reactions to a Possible Reunification in Korea
Last week, the leaders of North and South Korea – Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in –shook hands, and held hands as they crossed the heavily armed border zone. We asked Unmargin’s Korean American advisory members and community members to share their reaction, as well as permission to repost some reactions by Korean Americans that were found on social media. Those responses are compiled here.
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Growing up, when I told someone I was adopted from Korea, often their first question was, "Are you from the north or south?" I'd pause and respond, "from the South of course." The division was so normalized and it wasn't until much later that I began to question it. I am one of about 220,000 Koreans who've been adopted abroad, stemming as a direct result of the Korean War and U.S. political interest on the peninsula. I was separated, divided, pulled away, from my birth country as a toddler. When I saw the Korean leaders declare intentions for ending the war, I was a ball of emotions. The image of unity, harmony, and peace ran antithesis to my experience. It gives me hope that a country that has been bleeding since the war can start to heal. It give me hope that families still divided by a human-imposed border can reunite. It give me hope that we can denuclearize and demilitarize the peninsula. Hope is no small thing. It's a reminder that the impossible can become possible.
-Margie Andreason is co-founder of Network of Politicized Adoptees which works at the intersection of adoptee rights and social justice. She is also board chair of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders, a network of 1,500 Asian Minnesotans advancing equity in the state.
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Peace for Whom?
I watched the meeting of 김정은 (Kim Jeong Eun) and 문재인 (Moon Jae In) with elation and unease.
It was the word "peace" that troubled me the most.
To begin, "peace," was the word the Romans used after they waged a scorched earth campaign in what is now Scotland (Caledonia). Caldonian leader Calgacus famously looked upon the ruins of his homeland and commented, "The Romans made a desert and called it peace." Now the Americans never called it "peace," but they called it an "armistice," and forgot that they ever waged a war in Korea before the ashes of that country even finished smoldering. The US did create a desert, however. 32,557 tons of napalm obliterated the country so thoroughly, US Airforce General Curtis Lemay lamented that there was nothing left to bomb in either the North or the South.
Americans are truly privileged to lay waste to an entire country and annihilate an entire ethnic group without even being aware that they were at war and are still at war with said country. As the war in Afghanistan enters its 17th year, the US media keeps referring to it as America's longest war, failing to acknowledge the more than 68 years of war in Korea. This 68 year-long war in Korea is not simply war in name only: casualties have piled up over the years -and not just from the occasional border skirmish. At least a half-million people died in the North Korean famine of the 1990's, with some estimates as high a 4 million. These same Americans that are unaware that their country is still at war with North Korea simply dismiss the deaths as "North Korean leaders are starving their own citizens."
It's a privileged argument, not unlike the cries of "What about Black on Black violence?" in response to the endless processions of unjust police killings of Black men. Again, to most privileged outsiders, there is no problem of racism that underlies the preponderance of police killings of Black men because:
1. Said outsiders are not Black, therefore
2. This killing of Black men has no influence on their lives
As a consequence, elaborate mental gymnastics are deployed to reaffirm that a problem doesn't exist. With that conclusion, the privileged are free to continue to live in obliviousness.
Decades of crippling and illegal US sanctions (under the UN, embargos on food and medicine are illegal) undoubtedly play a major role in the devastation in North Korea. Like indiscriminate napalm attacks by the US airforce, these sanctions overwhelmingly target civilians. And like many wars waged upon, nameless, faceless, yellow and brown people overseas, Americans typically have no interest in these wars outside of US casualties. As long as it is "them," dying and not "us," most Americans could care less about bloody interventions overseas. Which brings us back to an observation by Martin Luther King Jr. To paraphrase: privileged and complacent [people] are more interested in a "negative peace," or an absence of visible conflict than a positive peace, which is truth, justice, and reconciliation.
And if, against the odds, "peace" prevails, then peace for whom? It's not gonna be peace until North Koreans are not starving. The average North Korean hasn't forgotten about more than 68 years of war, because every single day of their lives, they suffer from it. Once their suffering stops, then we can think about bandying around the word "Peace."
-郭思進 kwok sa jin is a Korean Amerasian activist, scholar, and educator. He is an MA candidate at 성공회 Songgonghoe University, and an ESL teacher at Sejong Academy in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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I watched President Kim Jong Un cross the border, I watched him and President Moon Jae In shake hands, I watched them sign an agreement to end a war that began before my mother, maybe my grandmother, was ever born, a war that sparked a diaspora of children like me and unlike me across the world
and I know for a fact that time and space are not linear bc right now I am watching a video that took place five hours ago of both presidents planting a single tree on the demarcation line and for a moment I could smell dirt and pine and fathers and I could hear the chimes of someone praying and I was laughing with cousins I’ve never met and all the tigers were humble and all our poems were demilitarized.
-Christy NaMee Eriksen is an award-winning artist, educator, activist, and writer whose work is grounded in social justice and community engagement.
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Today is for my uncle, my mother’s oldest brother. As my mom told me, he “disappeared” during the Korean War. My mom, as a 6 or 7 year old girl, used to wait for him in front of their house, after school, every day. He was her favorite brother. And then one day, he never came home. Someone told my mom’s mom that the North Korean army had rounded up high school boys in the local park to join them. So, my mom and her mom ran to the park. They saw him, and got as close to him as possible. They asked him when he was coming back. He said, as soon as he could, and not to worry. And then he was gone. That was the last time my mom saw him.
I didn’t know he existed until I was in college.
In 2007, I visited North Korea as part of a Korean American peace delegation called DEEP. Given only his name and age, I asked if a government unit responsible for reuniting divided families could help. They searched, but they couldn’t find him. I was hoping to find him, to give a little peace to my mom, to my family, to myself.
Wherever he is, because of today’s historic event, and because of the long, tireless efforts by activists around the Korean diaspora, I hope his spirit, and other “forgotten” spirits, and our spirits, can rest a little more peacefully.
- Terry K Park is a Lecturer in the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Maryland, College Park
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There is a house that shelters a family. 60 generations rest in its frame. Within its many rooms, people have fallen in and out love, worshiped, fought, made love, disremembered, memorialized. Throughout the centuries, rooms have been repurposed and added on. Sliding doors have opened and closed. Its garden has been trained to bare different crops and sometimes was asked to do nothing at all. Everyone in the house remembers when neighbors have intruded, put their dirty feet on the couch, stolen wood boards, made relatives suspect each other. The family memorializes when its next door neighbor claimed the house for themselves, forcing them to labor in their own home, and tried to make the family forget themselves. That generation saw their garden burst with bombs; 600 million tons of explosions cratered the hearts of those who survived. That generation saw their home partitioned by others, some were even recruited to build the walls. The house was split in half ambiguously. One side of the family had the kitchen and so the others learned to survive through a cracked window. One side had the library so they continued to write history while the others sang memory into song. Split like this, the people memorialized, obliterated, made love, fought, worshiped, and fell out and into love while yearning. Although the split family could not communicate with each other, they felt their connection through the heated floor boards in winter. They dug tunnels through the walls to whisper to each other about hope. They nursed themselves on imagined demolished borders, living in the house that shelters their divided family.
-Eva Song Margolis is a Korean American adoptee from Minneapolis. She is a writer, organizer, and advocate for racial and economic justice. She takes pleasure in connecting people, organizations, resources and philosophies. As poet, she sees how the arts can challenge and inspire us to dissect our understanding of the world, to redefine it, and to take charge in transforming it.
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It's hard not to be skeptical given the history, but also hard not to feel ebullient given the momentous nature of the Korea summit. To the skeptics I say: Look at the pace of exchange and communication between north and south over the past 30 years. The economic exchange, the summits, the public discourse, all point toward increased intimacy and good will between north and south. The journey may have many obstacles and be painfully slow and meander maddeningly, but there will be forward movement in the long run.
To the ebullient, I say: Reunification isn't going to be easy, and it isn't going to be a return to a unified Korea, but instead a new form of integration that may lead to a reunified Korea different from anything we might imagine now. The one sure thing will be opposition along the way from enemies and frenemies of Korea, cuz we know there are no true allies. Whatever progress is made, will be made by Koreans. No one else can ensure reunification and autonomy.
우리의 소원은 통일
이 겨레 살리는 통일
-Ji-Yeon Yuh is a board member of Korea Policy Institute and a founding member of the Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea (ASCK). She founded the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University, where she teaches Asian diaspora and Asian American women's history.
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The first image I saw of the summit - two men holding hands and smiling at each other - was reminiscent for me of lost childhood, of lost boyhood and a manhood that over time becomes collateral damage and then also a vehicle of misogyny and aggression embedded in systems and ways of life - here manifested as amped up militarism. The histories of this peninsula and the people who’ve left it could have been that much sweeter but for [ ]. And a brief taste of that sweetness was shocking and grief-inducing for me. Our deep sorrow and joy are too great to fit into my lifetime or generations of lifetimes and I feel them intertwined and compacted in my bones, the structure of my identity.
I've been mourning what was lost while feeling pride in the strong legacy of people's movements that got us to that moment at one of our world's manufactured yet gravely real land borders. This particular border shaped the lives of so many loved ones and violently altered my personal trajectory. As I listened to the stunned reactions of friends in Korea and abroad -our transnational communities- I felt hope in our collective power to build a future that incorporates the wisdom of those often considered disposable among us - disabled, queer, transgender, single mother, adopted, mixed-race, diasporic Koreans and migrant communities in Korea, our farmland and mountains and sacred lava rocks and reefs. We understand self-healing, shared struggle, multifaceted unity in ways that can inform Korea's tentative steps toward healthy relations with itself and others.
I'm not interested in nation-building, or an ahistoric nostalgia for the continuation of a past where so many of us experienced violence. Korea should not now demonstrate photo-perfect unity by brushing its most vulnerable members under the rug. Rather, I'm interested in what folks in Korea can create, with the support and different experiences of we in diaspora, that brings to life a decolonized future free of the US' agenda, that envisions what genuine security looks like on the peninsula and in solidarity with occupied and militarized areas of the world. Including the US. As a Korean American I know I have a different stake in current events than folks living on the peninsula and - I also do believe that I have a role to play. While I was most forcibly conscripted into this conversation as an infant sent alone to the US, our story was already living in my bones.
My feelings today are similar to ones I struggled to place when I visited the north a few years ago - grief as I saw our people's forced separation illuminated in new ways, surprise at how easy it was to make meaningful connections. I still have hope of visiting Mrs. Han, a language interpreter, who held my hand on a particularly bad health day in Pyongyong and told me that friends help friends find bathrooms. It's more complicated than that, and it isn't. We have the chance to reach out and reclaim some sweetness for ourselves going forward, while acknowledging and mourning the very very real shit we've gone through.
These recent events are motions in a trajectory toward peace and reconciliation, and while I wonder if this particular crossing includes all of us, I do so deeply believe in us.
- CJ Gi is a queer transnationally transracially adopted feminist Korean American local to Minnesota, living in the illegally occupied and militarized sovereign kingdom of Hawai'i. She's grateful to her communities of Pacific peoples and transnational Koreans for their years of support, recent conversations, and ideas which are represented here (plz ask for specifics if you'd like more info!).