Our first official visit to Seoul held many firsts for me. First and foremost, we were in there to learn more about the history of Korea. But before we dipped our feet into that, we had a bunch of fun playing in the first snowfall of the year! Even though we were on retreat with other very professional missionaries in the area, you better believe we had a couple snowball fights (‘noon-saum’ in Korean) between our official business.
Lesson number 1 : Koreans take Kimchi (김치: fermented cabbage, super-food of Korea) very seriously. We were at the end of the holiday week in which Koreans make the kimchi they’ll eat for the entire year. It’s a very labor-intensive process and there were mounds of cabbage like this one all around.
We also visited a war memorial that was close to a Buddhist temple. These colorful guys were seen inside.
Korea is a very vibrant and modern country, but as a small country surrounded by superpowers (China, Japan) its had a bloody past of colonization. While occupied by the Japanese, numerous war crimes were committed, including Japanese soldiers using Korean (and other) women as sex slaves. They called these women “comfort women” and to this day the Japanese government still refuses to acknowledge they committed a crime and have only offered half-apologies, despite international pressure from the UN. The survivors, lovingly called “할머니(Halmonies)” or “Grandmothers” in Korean have been incredibly active to bring justice to this issue, including creating statues like the one below. The statues commemorate the survivor’s innocence and freedom as girls, before both were taken away by war.
Paper butterflies (나비) are shown outside a museum dedicated to the Grandmothers that display encouraging notes in different languages. The notes write about solidarity, the hope for peace, and the yearning for justice. With notes in Korean, English, Japanese, and more, it seemed like the whole world was grieving through these butterflies.
Later that day we took part in a protest, the same protest that has occurred every Wednesday since 1992. Every single Wednesday in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, these Grandmothers are out there with megaphones, telling and re-telling their personal stories, as well as making their demands for reparation and apology from the Japanese government known. In the freezing rain, we stood by grandmothers, daughters, wives, nuns, and cameramen to sing and show solidarity for the Grandmothers. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing when I’m an old lady, but I hope it’s as vibrant and inspiring as these Grandmother’s fight for justice.
We hear stories about this all the time in Korea : how a couple strong-willed people completely stood their ground against title waves of apathy from disbelievers, then finally have the injustice they’ve suffered made known to the entire world, to appear in history books and have memorials built. I’ve come to believe there’s nothing stronger than the human spirit. It may be winners who write the textbooks, but it’s those who’ve suffered injustice who will cry out until they’re heard.
These are pictures taken from the DMZ – the de-militerized zone between North and South Korea. The blue buildings above act as meeting rooms for peace talks, built directly between the N/S boarder. After hearing so much about the history and heartbreak of the civil war, (and America’s involvement in it) it was mind-numbing to actually visit the physical place of so much tension, fear, and propaganda. What did I know about North Korea while I lived in America?
North Korea’s emphasis on military is renowned. But before coming to the Korean peninsula, I never stopped to ask why. Why were I not told about the events that led North Korea to take such desperate actions? What was I taught to believe? Was I told the whole story or was something hidden from me? Was I taught the dangers of a single story?
I saw documentaries with scary titles like “inside the horror of North Korea”, and knew only that North Koreans were brainwashed and their leader was a dictator. As I challenged to ask myself hard questions, I realized I’d seen North Koreans as the “other”, as people to be pitied. What do you think when you think of North Korea? What information have you been exposed to? … All the information I’d received led me to think of North Korea as the “other”, to be feared, to be pitied. Was this the right mindset? What if all of America thought of N.Korea as such? As I touched the silky ribbons tied to a wall between the North and South, adorned with the names of classes mates and schools crying out for peace, I wondered if the way I was taught to look at the North was hindering the peace so many voices cry out for. I’d never tried to think of North Korea as anything else. Not as a country who’s seen terrible war crimes. Not as a country who’s been threatened by air raids by the US. Not as a country who’s people are dearly loved by God. Historically, the act of “othering” only puts us farther away from our enemy, not closer. The distance makes us unwilling to talk to settle disputes, unwilling to respect the other.
My site director Kurt had some words of wisdom for me as we bounced along the bumpy tour bus “We want to encourage peace talks. When people and their countries are talking to each other, and respecting each other as human beings, they are less likely to bomb each other.”