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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.