What inter-Korean peace means to Korean-Australians and South Koreans
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After decades of being technically at war, how could the 2018 summit herald a new beginning for North and South Korea?
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What inter-Korean peace means to Korean-Australians and South Koreans

by Sylvia Lee See Profile
Sydney NSW, Australia
10th Aug 2018
What inter-Korean peace means to Korean-Australians and South Koreans

We hear about inter-Korean peace from the people it impacts the most. 

A few months ago, the world bore witness to history in the remaking. All eyes were locked on Singapore as Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un met and signed a joint statement committing to “a lasting and stable peace regime” and “complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”. 

After decades of being technically at war, could this historic summit herald a new beginning for North and South Korea? 

Since the armistice ended the Korean War in 1953, the two Koreas have been separated by a heavily militarised border that has divided families and created a deep historical trauma. For half a lifetime, ‘peace’ has always been an uncertainty. For many South Koreans, this uncertainty is simply a normal part of their lives. 

As Australians, we are often isolated from the rest of the world. It can be difficult to connect with world politics, which we view through the impersonal barrage of news headlines. 

Rarely do we hear the voices of the people they impact the most. But these ‘faraway’ events are closer than we think.

We interviewed seven Korean-Australians and South Koreans on what inter-Korean peace means to them. 

Esther Shim, 21, Korean-Australian student

Pictured: Esther Shim
Pictured: Esther Shim

I’ve been forced to think a lot more about inter-Korean relations than your average person because of my Korean-Australian identity. 

When white Australians meet me for the first time and I tell them I have a Korean background, I am frequently met with a “but are you from the North or South? Haha!” A lot of my experiences with white Australians have led me to stay informed because I feel like I have a duty to educate them about it. However, in my personal home life, I think the sheer geographical distance between the Korean conflict and my family has meant that we almost never talk it because it simply does not implicate us. At the same time, I know my grandparents lived through the Korean War… albeit they seldom talk about it.

I’ve always felt compassion for the North Korean people. I think the biggest shift in my opinion of North Korea since the peace talks has been towards its leader Kim Jong-un. I am genuinely intrigued by his willingness to engage in peace talks, but very sceptical about his motives. 

I’ve always hoped to see the end of the Korean War. However, it has almost always felt like a distant pipe dream… I don’t want my country of origin to be known by its divisions. My hope is that the peace talks will see families reunited, denuclearisation and the end to an oppressive dictatorship that violates human rights.

Rosie Min, 21, South Korean student

Pictured: Rosie Min
Pictured: Rosie Min

I always thought re-unification was a blurry uncertain future, so I never thought about it deeply.

I’m more sceptical about it. Kim will not do anything that might lead him to lose his power. Peace can only happen when North Korea becomes a democracy, but right now, the possibility is zero.

We had peace talks before, but nothing really happened. Maybe family reunions, but that is only a small part in comparison to the whole political scale. 

I hope that everything remains as it is right now. It might be too much to handle. I’m more on the side that does not want unification, so ironically, unification is my biggest fear. If unification happens, South Korea has to sacrifice so much. We have to provide North Korea with all the technology, equipment, knowledge… Our political connection with other countries will also have to be reset. 

Jennifer Lee*, 30, Korean-Australian doctor

I grew up in Australia until the age of 13, then moved to South Korea. I lived there until I returned to Sydney about eight years ago. My sister and her family and my closest friends live in Korea, and I go back often, so I do have a personal connection to the issue. 

The possibility of peace is important to me. It is important to most Koreans whether they admit it or not. The problem is it's been so hopeless in the past, so depressing what North Koreans go through, that many people including myself try to block it out and convince ourselves we don't care. 

Peace would mean not having this constant low level of fear in the background for my friends and family or myself whenever I go back. I think it is feasible, but it's all on Kim Jung-un and whether or not he enjoys the type of power he has now and wants a change for his country. 

I think being South Korean, I care more about South Korea and how reunification would affect the South negatively. I don't think non-Koreans would care as much if peace would cause a bit of short term chaos to South Korea's economy and directly affect my friends and family. 

*Name has been changed. 

Mae Sato*, 32, South Korean guesthouse host and father

Mae is originally from Japan. He lives in Seoul with his wife, Wi*, and their newborn child. Mae and Wi (as pictured) have a guesthouse business. 
Peace has a big, big significance for us and the future.

Korean people don’t really think there is a war. But men still have to join the military and there are sometimes North Korean missiles, which gives us tension. 

Two years ago, I got a message from a guest who said she was in Busan. She was so scared and couldn’t sleep. I was having a picnic by the Han River and thought it was stupid. But lots of my friends in Japan also joked, "be careful of missiles". But it is not really a funny joke for them. 

There are lots of attractive countries, so why should tourists take the risk to visit a country where there might be war? In South Korea, people laugh about it, but it is not a joke.

Being a father, I am more sensitive about all kind of things that could affect me and my family. But I try not to think about issues that are out of my hands. Sometimes I get upset about it, but five minutes later, it is no longer my problem and I am too busy caring for my baby anyway.

*Names have been changed. 

Soo-Min Shim, 21, Korean-Australian student

Soo-Min Shim
Soo-Min Shim

I do not think that peace will happen in our lifetimes. There have been several peace talks since the armistice and the promise of reunification has been brought up again and again. I know a lot of Koreans are kind of jaded and cynical about it now. 

I think living in Australia, I feel a bit more removed from the situation. For South Koreans, it is so immediate! All my male cousins have been to compulsory military service. In Australia, North Korea is so abstract, a product of stupid films like The Interview or fear-mongering from the media. I think this is dangerous though because people start to see the situation in North Korea as a joke, which it really isn’t. In 2014, Michael Kirby did a UN inquiry into the human rights abuses in North Korea and he concluded that they were the worst human rights abuses since the Holocaust… I think as a Korean-Australian, it is difficult to deal with people who are not Korean, who talk about it so flippantly. 

My grandma has family there and she does not even know if they are alive. She presumes they are dead now. Many Koreans have been separated from their families. Many Koreans are impoverished because they lost all their wealth fleeing from the North.

Kayla Lim, 27, South-Korean journalist

Pictured: Kayla Lim
Pictured: Kayla Lim

Peace to me means bridging of our torn history, and a chance to learn about the people that are of the same lineage that have lived in such vicinity, but with severed communication. 

The town I'm from is called Gwangju. My area has been blamed for being pro-North Korean. As a child, the general mood around me was that being on good terms with the North was a good thing for the long-term prosperity of this peninsula. I am aware that there are many who believe in the exact opposite.

As a Korean who has studied journalism abroad in Hong Kong, I felt that the division of the two Koreas was what made my motherland so interesting to the people of the world. Ours is the last remaining marks of the Cold War. With re-unification will finally come closure and the next era of world peace. 

I grew up in the 1990s listening to cassette tape fairy tales about the divine spirits and mythical monsters living in Mt. Geumgang: the mountain God, the talking (and smoking) tigers, the playful dokkaebis that play harmless tricks on villagers. I only found out much later that this mountain was in North Korea and off limits. Korea has volumes of folk tales that surpass the division line. 

I can't wait to see all these places I've only read about with my own eyes and speak with the people so alien yet with whom I share the same mother tongue. 

Jung-Sik Kim, 85, South Korean grandmother

Jung-Sik Kim
Jung-Sik Kim

Jung-Sik Kim is Soo-Min’s grandmother, a former refugee who escaped from North Korea during the Korean War. Soo-Min begun documenting her grandmother’s story in 2015 in hopes that it would humanise North Koreans and raise awareness of their experiences. Below is a redacted extract:

My birthplace and hometown is Jeongju, North Pyongan Province, North Korea.

I escaped during the summer in 1948 when I was 15 years old. 

Before the military demarcation line was set up, the Korean peninsula was under the control of the Japanese Empire. My family was the richest in my hometown at that time. There was nothing indeed for me to envy.

When the communist army strengthened the defence along the 38th parallel north, it was extremely dangerous to cross this line. I, however, had no other choice but to cross this line as the rich landowners and their family members were to be executed by the communists in North Korea. Many North Koreans were escaping to the South. 

The communists confiscated everything from my grandparents. My grandmother could not leave the land and she arranged the guides to take me from Pyongyang, North Korea to South Korea. I took the train from my hometown to Pyongyang to meet the guides whom my grandmother had paid. I didn’t see my family ever again. 

I miss those days (before the war) badly. In the summer, I played in the river and in the winter, I skated, rode a bike and I could play all the sports – even boys’ sports! I was growing up happily. 

I also miss the beautiful scenery in my hometown: the mountains, rivers, flora. The North has a different landscape to the South and I miss that. 

We must not forget North Koreans are real people, just like me.

Learn more about North Korean refugees and how you can help.

Liberty in North Korea
Sylvia Lee

About Sylvia Lee

Sylvia is a writer whose passion lies within the realm of storytelling and giving a voice to disadvantaged groups in society. When she's not penning a piece on social justice or green initiatives, she's busy challenging the status quo (she also loves unintentional puns) by admiring cute online pics of sheep and trying not to be pretentious at indie music gigs.

More from Sylvia Lee

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Minority Voices
Sydney NSW, Australia
10th August 2018

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