March 31, 2008

Yesterday I met a defector. And I was quietly, somewhat sheepishly shocked that a living breathing North Korean was before me trying to get a $30 refill card on a pre-paid mobile phone in a CVS in Washington, D.C.

I know what the media tells me — that they are destitute, oppressed, and need government-sponsored education in order to begin to fit into capitalist society. To his credit though, I couldn’t figure out the pre-paid card at first either.

He and his brother are mid-to-late twentysomethings, here on a government program, jet lagged on their first full day in the United States, and I’m still omfging because I forget that over ten thousand North Korean refugees make lives for themselves in South Korea; although not common, they are increasingly not rare. These two crossed into northeast China about ten years ago, and lived there for years in street poverty before moving to South Korea.

I didn’t show them the cherry blossoms because the logistics and weather weren’t cooperating, so we walked to the “quaint” (commercial) part of Georgetown, where hoodies at H&M can be had for $20 — now that’s a steal for someone used to prices in Seoul. Next I brought them to the most “American” diner I could think of and was nervous when the former refugee ordered the meatloaf. I am like the Worst Washington, D.C., Host Ever.

Russian fur cap or 'ushanka'Among other things, he explained dongmu (comrade), and although I’ve heard the term used before (in South Korean movies like JSA) and I know the connotations of “comrade” in American culture (Cold War movies or Animal Farm pigs or whatever), I never really thought about it.

He compared it with the South Korean term chingu (friend), which he thinks is as problematic as the South’s traditional restrictive society in which ‘friend’ is wrapped, whereas the North Korean dongmu is culturally liberated from the long-standing Confucian doctrine still prevalent in the capitalistic South. He argues that South Korea’s social atmosphere is much more confined by old school Confucian hierarchies than any other East Asian country, especially compared to the communist ones that hold up to Confucius the way Marxists take to the bourgeoisie.

Breaking down the antiquated social order sounds like a page out of a little red book, but what his friend/comrade distinction plays into makes a lot of sense — it’s as if North Koreans are just as startled with and turned off by some aspects of South Korean society as Westerners.

[For a good recap on the issue of North Korean refugees circa March 2008, listen to a (49-minute) podcast compiled by The World (PRI/BBC) from recent reporting.]


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