A Memory from my trip to North Korea

Me and some of my friends at the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il statues in Pyongyang, the first stop on our tour in North Korea.

During my recent trip to North Korea that I co-organized for 24 Harvard classmates and friends, one particularly memorable moment took place at the DMZ from the DPRK’s side, where I saw both the North Korean and South Korean flags straddling the 38th parallel.  I carefully struck up a conversation with a North Korean military officer in his mid-50s.  At first, he scowled and demanded that I, a Korean-speaking American, stand away from him.  I kept near him, pretending that I had no wiggle room amidst the dozens of fellow tourists who were also at the DMZ.

After his military colleagues cleared the area, the officer casually covered his mouth with a folder, looked away from me, and in a low voice started asking me questions about my life in America.   After all, he couldn’t have his colleagues see him be so friendly with a foreigner, much less an ethnic Korean American.  He asked me what life was like in America, what my parents did, and how I learned to speak Korean in America.  His questions were rooted in sheer, nonjudgmental curiosity. For ten minutes, we stood by each other in a crowd while looking in opposite directions, and carried this clandestine conversation in Korean while having both of our mouths covered.

After telling me that he full-heartedly wishes that the two Koreas reunify so that all Korean people, hanminjok, can live together in peace, he asked me:

“Do I look like your father?”

I didn’t really know what he was asking, so when I asked him to ask his question again, he said:

“Well, I know that we’re hanminjok, but I’m curious if I look like a Korean man in the United States. Am I as tall as him? Same face?” 

I choked back tears, and made some joke about how handsome the military officer was.  The man was significantly shorter, thinner, and had much darker skin than my father.  I was standing in front of the flesh and blood that was the result of a divided country, 60 years later, in human form.  My father could have easily been born in North Korea, but was born 35 miles south of the DMZ, and his fate could not have been more different than of the man I was standing in front of.

A rush of military officers headed our way, which abruptly ended our guarded conversation.  The officer shoved me out of the way and barked at me to not stand so close.  I tried to wave goodbye, but he ignored me.  I’m pretty sure that he was acting like so because he was in the company of his colleagues. When it was time for my group to get back on the bus, I caught his eye and winked.  Without smiling, he winked back.

This is the North Korean soldier I chatted with at the DMZ from the DPRK side. I blurred his image to protect his identity

This is the North Korean soldier I chatted with at the DMZ from the DPRK side. I blurred his image to protect his identity

Me and a North Korean military woman officer in front of the USS Pueblo

Me and a North Korean military woman officer in front of the USS Pueblo. Our birthdays are two months apart!

Me and an oncologist at the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital.

Me and an oncologist at the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital.

Me and an employee at the Pyongyang movie studio. He has worked here for 40 years.

Me and an employee at the Pyongyang movie studio. He has worked here for 40 years.

Me and a little girl I met in Wonsan. She called me, 'dong-ji,' which means 'comrade' in Korean. In South Korea, a girl her age would have called me 'unie,' which means older sister.

Me and a little girl I met in Wonsan. She called me, ‘dong-ji,’ which means ‘comrade’ in Korean. In South Korea, a girl her age would have called me ‘unie,’ which means ‘older sister.’

A traffic controller in Pyongyang

A traffic controller in Pyongyang

Me in Pyongyang

Me in Pyongyang

Me and an HKS classmate at the Juche tower

Me and an HKS classmate at the Juche tower

A bunch of North Korean people wanted to take this photo with us because they were excited to meet Korean-speaking Americans (me and the guy in yellow). They called this a family photo! :)

Wonsan, North Korea

Wonsan, North Korea

Fisherman in Wonsan, North Korea

Fisherman in Wonsan, North Korea

Little students in Wonsan, North Korea (took this photo from our bus)

Little students in Wonsan, North Korea (took this photo from our bus)

Grand People’s Study Hall in Pyongyang

Grand People's Study Hall in Pyongyang, North Korea

Grand People’s Study Hall in Pyongyang, North Korea

A group photo  in front of the Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il mausoleum. The cute kids in yellow were there to take photos with tourists

A group photo in front of the Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il mausoleum. The cute kids in yellow were there to take photos with tourists

Arirang (The Mass Games)

Arirang (The Mass Games)

Arirang (The Mass Games)

Arirang (The Mass Games)


[1] I co-organized a Harvard University Kennedy School Trek for 24 classmates and friends to North Korea in August, 2013.

8 thoughts on “A Memory from my trip to North Korea

  1. Jieun unnie, thank you for sharing such a special and incredible trip with everyone. I was moved to tears by the story of the North Korean soldier you had a conversation with. I hope you continue to write about and share your experiences from NK. Thank you!!!

    Love,
    Michelle

  2. Hi Jieun,

    a friend shared your article on Facebook, and I had to comment on how wonderful it was to have read this story. So often, I think we tend to leave out the human-factor in any North Korean issues/news we read, but really, these people are just like us.

  3. It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d without a doubt donate to this superb blog!
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    • What a kind remark! I certainly do not need donations to maintain this blog, but I will send you information about a very effective NGO that I fundraise for, if that interests you. Thank you for following this blog. Let’s connect often!

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