Every so often, I’ll let someone know I’m Korean and that person will ask ‘”North or South?” without the requisite wink in their tone and I’ll have to keep a straight face and respond “South.” Surely it’ s not up to ME to educate them! That would be some kind of malpractice because I have a young. inattentive child’s knowledge of the North-South divide, Communism and the allusive Kim clan. I imagine myself as an unhinged professor teaching one of those filler, low effort classes I took for fun at my otherwise intense liberal arts college, Carleton (eg, “The Mall of America as Reflection of American Society.”). My curriculum would include MASH episodes (Does anyone else remember when Radar saw some North Korean woman burying something in the ground at night and feared it was a landmine only to unearth it in the daylight and discover a pot of Kimchi? Best episode ever!), graphic novels like Pyongyang, Without You There is No Us, a memoir about a young South Korean women teaching North Korean boys and of course the riveting Kdrama Crash Landing on You on Netflix that tells the story of a South Korean heiress who accidently paraglides into North Korea-first stuck in a tree and then caught in the arms of a very handsome North Korean soldier. (See my goofy doll versions of them below).
Crash Landing on You, which was written in collaboration with a North Korean defector, holds the honor of being the only tale set in North Korea that makes me want to visit the country. The books I read, depict it as an odd, lifeless country whose people are on the whole brainwashed and cowered by their leadership. If even a glimpse of this show is realistic, then by golly, I’m joining my friend Jin Sun’s church group and heading there. Or more conservatively, when North Korea becomes Libya-esque and the Kim family becomes like Gaddafi welcoming Americans to his shore, I’m in. Maybe. I mean look at the lush countryside I did not imagine, the leaked in capitalism of multi function rice cookers and even access to Kdramas! I could like Yoon Se-Ri have a group of fun, loyal female friends and a group of strong young men who would idolize me and keep me safe. Even the average North Korean on this show eats alright. I’d imagined slop for all but the Kims.
But who m am I to believe? Defectors, I have read, have been known to embellish and distort reality. They know that we want to hear really good or really bad things about North Korea, not a murky middle. Then again, Americans like the narrator of Pyongyang, are often subjected to a brisk, formal tour of North Korea, which might mask a livelier side. The Suki Kim memoir showed me a North Korea of smart, mildly curious kids with some access to pop culture and world events but the authoritarian grasp stunk badly and I wanted no part of it.
I’d end my class with a good ol’ slideshow (albeit some imagined slides) of my own trip to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) a decade ago. See me crammed on a tourist bus with older South Korean women en route to the DMZ. (Did you know farmers at least back then were paid $100,000 to farm at the DMZ and there were waiting lists. I bet that soil GLOWS.)
See me sitting in the DMZ’s welcome center watching a sentimental film/piece of propaganda about North-South future reunification that featured a little girl at a fence staring sadly. These film makers could have used a lesson on effective, subtle schmaltz as executed by the writers and actors of Crash Landing on You. Those scenes of the Captain and Se-Ri at the border embracing while soldiers stare on (not a spoiler I promise) were like propaganda gold. (On a personal note, ask any adoptee if they can avoid inhaling their tears at scenes of family separation or lovers wrenched apart; the answer is no).
See me visiting the Dorosan train station that used to connect North and South but is now largely symbolic for reunification. (Check out the cool stamp of the train station below. It makes the North-South divide so poetic!).
See me in my cable car descending the dark DMZ infiltration tunnel and frowning as our guide advised us not to take photos “because of the soldiers.” I had three related thoughts: 1) Would I be shot on site if I took a selfie? It seemed like a real possibility looking at the unsmiling. armed soldiers en route; 2) Did our guide got a kick out of regaling us with true tales of past skirmishes at the DMZ as we plunged underground? No doubt; 3) Finally, how little would I have to do to cause a major international conflict?
Next in my mostly imaginary slide show, see me re-emerging from the tunnel (sweaty and anxious) to go straight to the gift shop’s proud display of alcoholic beverages from the DMZ–a row of mysterious green bottles–and once outside secret-scowl at a guard who advised me tourists cannot drink in the open.
See me standing at the vista where we were supposed to see a glimpse of North Korea but could see nothing but fog. (This exact scenario has happened the two times I have tried to go whale watching. Wretched evaporation!!)
See me boarding the same bus back to my Seoul residence to be inexplicably laughed at by a rowdy, perhaps tipsy crew of older Korean women–opened green bottles in hand. (My Korean friend who was with me said they were saying in good spirits that we were late and they’d been endlessly waiting for us on the bus).
That’s all for this lesson, students. xoxo