I t is a somber time in Korea. Two weeks ago, a passenger ferry carrying 476 people, mostly high school students on spring break, capsized near the southwestern coast of the peninsula. As of Sunday, the search team had recovered 188 bodies, but 114 people still remain missing.
In its wake, I was heartened to see how people have turned distress into a call for gathering and healing. On our campus last week, students held a candlelight vigil to express support for the families of the missing. In the realm of social media, people have been posting the image of a bright yellow ribbon, which was first widely used in America during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, to express hope that the missing might eventually come back. And this past weekend, President Obama presented Koreans with a memorial flag and a magnolia tree. The latter is said to symbolize “beauty and renewal.”
Meanwhile, another group of Koreans has been dealing with tragedie s on a daily basis and arguably deserve our more immediate attention: our estranged neighbor, North Korea.
The latest UN Human Rights Council report estimated that 80,000 to 120,000 North Korean political prisoners are detained in camps. “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations,” the experts wrote, “does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” In its wake, however, I was disheartened to find that people have privately reserved their sympathy for the plight of North Koreans.
Critics of North Korea, on the other hand, have publicly used the report’s findings to launch the routine rebukes against the government and confirm their existing beliefs about the deplorable nature of North Korea. President Obama, during his recent trip to Asia, added that the North Koreans “suffer, terribly, because of the decisions that its leaders made.”
America’s stance toward North Korea is quite understandable — perhaps even strategically logical — but at times, it is nonetheless baffling to me. What confuses me is not so much the North Korean government as it is the American government and its interpretation of factors, which leads to hostile North Korean threats.
It seems as though the international community’s unspoken desire is for North Korea to be within its realm of control. It needs North Korea to be predictable, or else, it is simply labeled crazy.
North Koreans are not crazy. They are being human.
In my view, North Korea is reacting to a specific set of historical circumstances, which, unfortunately, the United States is largely responsible fo r. The North Koreans seem to suffer from inherited grudges against America and Japan. For example, the United States dropped more bombs in Korea during the war — 635,000 tons to be exact — which is more than the amount dropped in the entire Pacific theater during World War II. The memory of such atrocities still seems to haunt North Koreans, who have subsequently responded by creating a virulently anti-American regime.
It is human to forget the harm you’ve caused. But the harm that was done to you, I find it harder to forget those things.
And this makes me think that the situation in Korea might change if the American leaders would, for once, stop and reflect on their own decisions that might have elicited certain responses before criticizing the North Korean leaders for their decisions.
North Korea is slowly adapting to the world. It is opening up, if ever so slightly. Two weeks ago, the Pyongyang Marathon welcomed 225 runners from across the globe, providing access to unforeseen images of the country. The Dennis Rodman visit, despite whatever fierce criticism people had against him, also provided a foundation for a potential dialogue. And in light of the tragedy in South Korea, North Korea has even publicly expressed “deep sympathy as regards the sinking of the ferry Sewol.”
I hope more people could ask not how much North Korea should change to meet our standards, but about what they could do to change their own attitudes towards North Korea and to help them join the international community. I dream that just as Americans presented the South with a magnolia tree to heal wounds, the process of renewal between the United States and North Korea could begin with a simple gesture of goodwill that would come without any strings attached.
Jay Chung is a College senior from South Korea. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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