"Imagining the two Koreas overcoming our differences and finally achieving reunification provokes a truly unexpected emotional response from me," writes Korean New Zealander Maria Mo.
우리의 소원은 통일 (Our one wish is reunification)
꿈에도 소원은 통일 (even in our dreams we wish for reunification)
These are the opening lines to a song I learned growing up in Korea. The tragedy of a nation torn in two was well drilled into us from childhood – we’d learn it in our history books, watch it on the news, read it in the papers. There would be televised broadcasts of separated families being reunited which would take over the entire country in an emotional frenzy. And yet, it also became the status quo. As you grow older and life gets busier, you tend to forget about the Military Demarcation Line. You gotta go to hagwon, man, so you can go to an ‘in-Seoul’ university and become a corporate lackey just like all the other successful kids.
The South Korea I grew up in reviled the North as the enemy. I remember when their leader was the OG Kim daddy, Kim Il-Sung. I remember his death in 1994, and seeing his funeral and embalmed corpse on TV. I remember finding a North Korean propaganda leaflet on the street one day and handing it in to the police. You were given a wee prize for them and kids would get excited when they found one.
I moved with my family to New Zealand in 1995 as a nine year-old. Kids at school would taunt little fresh off the boat me: “Chinese!” pulling their eyes downwards. “Japanese!” pulling their eyes backwards. I would yell back “No! KOREAN!” and trace my fingers around the outlines of my eyes, their shapes intact, indignant that anyone would mistake me for anything else. Over the years I lost my Korean sass and suffered the classic immigrant kid syndrome of not knowing where I fit in – on the one hand, you have people who seem to think it mandatory to class you as your ethnicity first (gross), then you get the ones that go too far in the other direction and say things like, “oh but you’re a kiwi!” which felt like an erasure of my heritage. You couldn’t bloody win. I even took to saying “I’d say I’m 30/70 Korean/Kiwi, sometimes 40/60”, and it felt ridiculous to quantify my identity like that. Some people like to use the word kowi, I say portmanteaus are dumb. In other words, I was one confused little banana (yellow on the outside, white on the inside).
The older I get though, the more I feel in touch with my Korean side, helped by the fact that white people love kimchi now. Korean politics also interests me more than ever before. President Moon Jae In has impressed me so far – he’s centre-left (doesn’t get much more progressive in SK), isn’t in prison (unlike the last two presidents), and has managed to bring a Kim over to the South for the first time. He’s also namechecked Trump as having played a key part but don’t believe the hype, he kinda has to. The US still have troops stationed in Korea and are one of the three countries that signed the Korean Armistice alongside China and North Korea (South Korea was sick that day and missed out. Jokes, but it’s a long story).
Western media has been having a field day with these developments. They have the facts thank you, and they report as though they know what it all means. I don’t really think they do. I think this is a unique situation where all bets are off, and no one can truly understand what any of this means if you aren’t actually Korean. Patrick Thomsen, Visiting Professor of Korean Studies and International Relations at Yonsei University, writes: “There is something distinctly familiar about these Western critiques, especially those of international relations experts, whose discipline unashamedly admits that it believes cultural context doesn't matter… One of the most significant statements that the Panmunjom declaration made was that from now on, Koreans would work together to take charge of the affairs of the Korean peninsula. Western analysts should take this statement more seriously.”
They may have the research and predictions but there’s no way for them to fathom how united we strive to be as we move forward. They need to stop interpreting things through their lens and posturing that as the truth.
The thought that Kim Jung Un was just another Korean didn’t register until I heard him speak in my mother tongue. And somehow, although it should have been obvious, the fact that he spoke the same language as me was a revelation. I understood his words. We were the same people, after all. How bizarre!
Imagining the two Koreas overcoming our differences and finally achieving reunification provokes a truly unexpected emotional response from me. I turn into a real sooky baba and my eyes well up at the thought.
What to call this? It’s an overwhelming feeling, neither completely sad nor happy, it’s grief as well as relief, and I can only find the appropriate words in Korean: 감격, 설움, 한. No translation feels true enough.
There’ll be more summits and there’ll be more talk. As for the prediction that Trump will be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his supposed contribution in all this – the thought is, of course, absolutely galling. But I think President Moon said it best: “let Trump have his Nobel Prize. All we want is to bring peace.” I would like to think that’s possible. I would like to see it in my lifetime.