[Seoul Lounge] Dealing with each other

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[Seoul Lounge] Dealing with each other

I was in college in America, hav-ing recently returned from an ex-change program in Germany, when newspapers blazed miraculous head-lines of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I bought a plane ticket I couldn't afford, went to Berlin and climbed the wall to hammer and chisel my own memen-to.

Here in South Korea, where I've worked as a journalist for four years, a part of me waits and hopes for a "Ber-lin moment," when the tipping point is reached and more than half a cen-tury's division resolves itself in one glorious catharsis. No one is to say what the moment will look like: tides of Koreans running from both direc-tions of the Dorasan crossing, embrac-ing en masse and bringing out the picnic blankets, chukbal and soju right there on the concrete?

A bit naive, perhaps. But I think it's true that every international jour-nalist who comes here hopes they've pulled the arm of the slot machine at just the right time. The jackpot of re-unification.

But time goes by. A disproportion-ate amount of it is spent on merry-go-round stories like the breakdown of the six-party nuclear talks. No, wait, they're back on again. No, they've bro-ken down. No, wait, didn't I write this same story a year ago?

So for now, Berlin moments have to be found on a smaller, more per-sonal scale — not in choreographed, made-for-television ceremonies and speeches but in real-world interac-tions between the North and South. One moving example is an organiza-tion I have watched grow from one North Korean defector’s idea to a full-fledged nongovernmental organiza-tion.

If you want to know who will be leading large numbers of North Kore-ans 20 years from now, I recommend instead of asking who has Kim Jong-il's DNA, you ask which North Kore-ans have qualities like those of Kim Young-il. Two and a half years ago, after graduating from Hankuk Univer-sity of Foreign Studies, Kim founded PSCOre (pronounce it "peace corps" — it stands for People for Successful Corean Reunification). At the time, it was little more than an informal oc-casional gathering of North and South Koreans, along with the odd one or two expats like me, for barbecue, soju and conversation.

By the time I hosted members at my home for buddae jigae in 2007, Kim had built the group into a de facto hag-won — pairing up English speakers (mostly South Koreans) with newly-arrived North Korean defectors, just like he was only a few years earlier.

A group like this is attractive to me personally because I think there is a natural affinity between U.S. expats like myself and North Korean defec-tors. We both deal with a certain de-gree of alienation here, albeit for dif-ferent reasons. We look different. We sound different. We both lack the shared context that cements South Ko-reans together so tightly.

We also have a refreshing lack of familiarity towards each other. Unlike South Koreans who have had exten-sive contact with the U.S., speak far better English than they will admit and have woven U.S. influences seam-lessly into their pop culture scene, North Koreans remain for the most part a blank slate. They ask questions that take very little for granted, and their often limited English forces me to meet them in the middle with my limited Korean — often yielding cave-man-like conversations rich in amus-ing pantomime.

What the group offers the two Ko-rean sides is a bit deeper. The very process of administering the group and sticking to the class schedule has provided a laboratory for young North Korean defectors and South Koreans to practice making something work. There have been lively debates about the group's future direction as well as some growing pains. Kim has opted to steer the group away from being yet another resource to help North Kore-ans "deal with" the South and instead towards a place where the two sides have to deal with each other.

Kim has now secured generous funding grants from South Korea’s unification ministry and the U.S. State Department. Presently, there are four staff members, 40 highly-active vol-unteers and about 400 online mem-bers — a few too many to have over the house for buddae jigae. The group's website, pscore.org, is slowly evolving into a portal of North and South news, information and interactivity.

Through my exposure to Kim, his organization and to other North Kore-ans and the activists who work with them, I feel I am witnessing the real coming together of Koreans from the North and the South. The process of unification, in other words, in minia-ture. And if the "Berlin moment" should by some chance arrive, I sus-pect he'll be somewhere out front.

* The author is former VOA Seoul correspondent.

by Kurt Achin
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