week 4: remembering north korea

(Um, disclaimer: this video has nothing to do with my blog post this week, haha…)

In the midst of the glitter and glamor of Oxford, I was deeply grateful for the opportunity this week to reflect on one of the issues nearest to my heart: the state of North Korea.

It’s rather lovely how famous speakers so frequently stroll casually into Oxford to give talks, a fair share of them completely free! One such talk this week was by John Everard, the former British diplomat to North Korea, and of course I skipped lunch to run there breathlessly. It was a funny, insightful, and gratingly realistic talk that reminded me forcibly of how urgent my country’s crisis still was.

John Everard was a tall, elegant man with white hair and bright eyes that were simultaneously gentle and fiercely alert; he carried himself gracefully, laughing easily and sympathetically. He opened his talk by reminding us of two vital things. “Firstly, North Koreans are people,” he stressed. “Day-to-day people who aren’t obsessing about how to obliterate the US or dominate the Korean peninsula. They’re people who worry about marriage, families, how to send their kids to school. And secondly, they’re Koreans. They’re not just defined by North Korea, but by their heritage of a very long, rich history. Also, they’re just generally nice people with a wicked sense of humor.” He flashed us a smile.

He went through photographs he had taken during his visits to North Korea, explaining the state of North Koreans’ current poverty, education, and love lives (he showed us a delightful photo of an ordinary North Korean couple on a date, staring mesmerized into each other’s eyes). He also said that their subways were much deeper underground than ours (in the US and in the South), because they also served as bunkers in the event of nuclear war. “If you get a power outage in there, it’s very nasty, I can tell you,” he said. “It gets so dark you can’t even see your own hand, and then you get a chance to hear every North Korean swearword at once.” He chuckled.

I loved his stories of the passionate North Koreans who survived in the midst of their hardship—like the teachers who copied out entire textbooks for their students by hand, and the young women who waded through bug-infested water to harvest their rice. But I also felt tears rise to my eyes at his photograph of the pretty young pharmacist, who had shown him a completely empty medicine cabinet and said that the only things she could offer to the sick were green tea and sympathy.

He was kind enough to answer my questions about several communist conspiracy theories in South Korea very insightfully, and ended his presentation with a sober reminder that the current state of North Korea was simply not sustainable, and that North Korea could actually start a nuclear war, especially in the light of recent tensions. The possibility of Trump attacking North Korea was also high, with estimates from White House insiders coming in at 30%. Everard remained suspicious about the North’s participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics this week. He reminded all the Britons in the room: “If this sucker goes down, the UK goes down with it. Don’t think we’re in any way exempt.”

Walking home, I felt myself burning hot and cold all over with all my unspoken thoughts. I felt sad, helpless, angry, grateful—how could I study at Oxford, while my people were copying out their few textbooks by hand and shivering without a fire? And yet, what an undeserved blessing, for me to be at a place where I could speak firsthand to a diplomat about the current state of my country! I wanted to rush out of school and do something—anything—to help my people. And yet, trying my best in my current situation, I supposed, was the first step to doing so. When I reached home I spent several hours writing applications for volunteer work with North Korean refugees during the summer. Lying in bed, I thought about one of the photographs Everard had shown us—a stark, barren wasteland in North Korea, with the faint outline of Chinese skyscrapers rising like a hazy mirage on the horizon. “North Koreans aren’t stupid,” Everard said. “Imagine sitting hungry and cold on this wasteland and looking out to those glittering skyscrapers, a rich world so far away—how would you feel?”

Indeed, I thought. How would they feel? And I promised myself sadly, all over again: I won’t forget. I won’t forget. However hard I study, however much I enjoy my life in America and in Oxford, I won’t forget what they endure, and what I owe to my country.

2 thoughts on “week 4: remembering north korea

  1. antoniagascoyne

    Wow this was so cool to read, I wish I could have gone to that lecture! You’re so wonderful, Esther, can’t wait to hear about how the volunteer opportunities turn out! <3


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