Unparalleled Difficulty: Writing about Aid for North Korea

September 16, 2011

Photo by James Cridland, cc, Flickr

A few months ago, I naively embarked on a mission to write about a topic that I found to be quite fascinating: the different ideologies of Korean American humanitarian and social justice organizations that aim to assist the people of North Korea. A brutal regime may be the dominant lens through which many view North Korea, but there are alternative schools of thought on the DPRK and solutions for helping its citizens. While I once thought all of these organizations generally had the same goals, a series of events and experiences (including writing failure) revealed to me the politically charged nature of doing good for North Korea -- and how subjective “good” can be.

In 2010, I wrote a response to Christopher Hitchens’s reference in Slate to North Koreans as “racist dwarves." To provide a resource for readers who were interested in DPRK aid, I hyperlinked to the group that stuck out the most in my memory: Liberty in North Korea, or LiNK, an organization that hosts 180 chapters worldwide. My rationale was simply, “Everyone knows LiNK, right?”

After publishing, I received an email from a friend who was critical of my choice of referral, believing that LiNK’s framework -- increasing media awareness of human rights abuses and assisting refugees in underground shelters throughout Asia -- contributed to a simplistic “evil” representation of North Korea without addressing the economic and historical context of the division of the peninsula. I was taken aback because I wasn’t aware that I had developed any kind of political leaning on North Korea.

But looking back at my post, I certainly had adopted a stance, in that I believed the North Korean people were suffering and were without individual freedoms. Over the years, I had subconsciously picked a side when it came to the 38th parallel. At the time, I was a master’s student in Asian American Studies, and similarly felt a pressure to switch ideological teams, so to speak; that by nature of my discipline I should be condemning US imperialism on the Korean peninsula. I was confused about what to believe -- and what I was expected to believe -- as a Korean American, an Asian American, an ethnic studies student, and as a self-proclaimed progressive.

Months later, I joined my friend for a screening of the documentary North Korea: Beyond the DMZ, in which a Korean American records her visit to North Korea and the relatively normal existence of its people, contrary to images manipulated by Western media. Yet, there was no mention of political prisoners, interviews with poor or rural citizens, or discussion of how much personal freedom (or dissent) is allowed, topics that have been of concern to human rights groups. Conversely, organizations that focused on clandestinely aiding defectors and refugees never mentioned the economic sanctions placed on North Korea or the US economic and military interests in South Korea that benefit from the continuing state of war on the peninsula. It was both frustrating and intriguing and I thought I could take these opposing ideas and synthesize them into a blog post.

I began looking into various organizations and reaching out to staff members to get their insight. I first heard from Crossing Borders -- a faith-based organization that provides aid to North Koreans who have fled to China. I asked my contact, Z*, about Korean American perceptions of North Korea and their effect on humanitarian issues.

“Everybody in the Korean diaspora seems to have differing views of the two Koreas, which I think is part of the problem,” says Z. “Some people love South Korean culture but don't know anything about the North." Z continues, “In regards to the North, I find that most Koreans (first, second and even third [generation]) don't know or don't care until they are hit over the head with the truth.”

The “truth” is, of course, subjective depending on which organization you speak with. The Crossing Borders website references international food and medical aid that is diverted to North Korea’s elite, the hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, and the danger of torture or death facing refugees who are captured and sent home. However, Juyeon Rhee of Nodutdol for Korean Community Development, based out of New York City, frames North Korea as a society rather than a regime. “We believe that North Koreans are able to engage in the process of building and changing their own society as they see fit once peace on the Korean peninsula is achieved.” Nodutdol includes in its programming an educational trip for Korean Americans to visit North Korea, so as to “demystify the DPRK, and build person to person understanding.”

On one end of the spectrum, activists want to assist refugees and expose the abuses of a regime; on the other, organizers want to engage and de-stigmatize North Korea and work toward a demilitarized and united Korean peninsula. Both sides have valid points, but for someone like me who was confounded by the issue it felt like certain topics were skirted or, if they seemed particularly political, avoided entirely. Only Rhee spoke directly about a popular opposing opinion: “Our goal is to improve the lives of the Korean people on both sides of the 38th parallel -- regime collapse will never be the best way to do this.”

Communicating with representatives from different organizations did little to reduce my confusion, despite their graciousness in taking the time to discuss the topic with me. I made contact with LiNK -- who stated that they do not identify as a Korean American organization and wasn’t sure how much they could be of help to this piece -- but there was never a follow-up on my initial questions. A representative from a group who disagreed with the media demonization of North Korea chose to remain anonymous and off-the-record because the organization had yet to define an official political stance. Z from Crossing Borders requested to remain anonymous due to the risk factors associated with their particular line of activism. Aside from the openness of the Nodutdol staff, there seemed to be an odd mix of elusiveness, political tension, and danger surrounding this issue of organizing aid for North Korea. My attempts to be respectful of these varying beliefs and circumstances and remain objective yielded a rote first draft that didn't say much but regurgitated plenty. I was ready to kill the piece, thinking my fear of offending and my own vacillation on the topic was too strong to craft a decent post. With the help of my coeditor, I decided to go meta on the damn thing; all I could do was write about how hard it is to write about organizing for North Korea.

I consider it all a learning experience and can trace where I lost sight of the larger picture. Whether these groups can or should work together is perhaps not the issue, nor is it even who’s “right” and who’s “wrong.” It may be the social pressure to pick a side that holds the most significance. One is likely to get heat whether they align with the North, the South, the US or claim neutrality. It was a series of incidental events that led me to explore the issue of aiding North Koreans and ask questions that tested my personal and political beliefs. I didn’t necessarily get answers that solidified any one opinion, but perhaps that was as lofty a goal as thinking I could easily tackle this writing assignment. Whether through support of educational exchanges, refugee assistance, labor organizing, missionary work or food/medical aid, the choices one makes to do some good for North Korea (or not) are entangled in sometimes subtle but quite tangible political threads, even for the seemingly apolitical … like I once thought I was.

*Name has been changed by request.


Sylvie Kim

contributing editor & blogger

Sylvie Kim is a contributing editor at Hyphen. She previously served as Hyphen's blog coeditor with erin Khue Ninh, film editor, and blog columnist.

She writes about gender, race, class and privilege in pop culture and media (fun fun fun!) at www.sylvie-kim.com and at SF Weekly's The Exhibitionist blog. Her work has also appeared on Racialicious and Salon.