Will Fight a Thousand Times Over: The Power of a Mother

So I’ve been terrible about keeping up with writing (…as per usual… ㅜㅜ). But a while back, I was lucky enough to sit in on the ISC’s interview with 민가협/Minkahyup, an organization for the family members of those who have been politically imprisoned under Korea’s National Security Law. Every Thursday afternoon at 2pm, they hold a protest at Tapgol Park in Seoul to demand a) the release of all political prisoners, and b) the abolishment of the NSL. Thursday, October 16th, marked the organization’s 1,000th protest. While many Korean activists came out to support Minkahyup and to pay respects to the mothers who have carried on the struggle, the fact that the organization continues to organize and exist out of necessity lent an underlying somberness to the event as well. During the event, a speaker noted that Minkahyup’s goal is to be rendered obsolete; that no more people be imprisoned, and no more families be torn apart by the government. I’m not used to organizations advocating for their own end, but it just goes to show the depths of the Minkahyup mothers’ dedication; they organize not for fun, but for a goal that they wish to see through til the end. Thank you to the Minkahyup mothers for sharing their stories; I hope that, together, we can see your goals accomplished and that you and your families can get the peace you deserve.

solidarity stories

by Dae-Han Song

Making History: Minkahyup

group

The interview was carried out by Dae-Han Song and Stephanie Park with interpretation by Jeong Eun Hwang.

On October 16th, Minkahyup had their thousandth Thursday protest against the National Security Law and for the release of all political prisoners. On October 22nd, Jeong-Eun Hwang[1], Stephanie Park[2], and Dae-Han Song[3] visited Minkahyup[4] to interview its current president Jo, Soon Deok[5]; former president Kim, Jeong Seok[6]; and administrative coordinator Kim, Hyun Joo[7].

“What was your reaction when you found out your sons were wanted by the police?” I start the interview. Jo, Soon Deok begins, “Mothers usually think, ‘The work [fighting for democracy] needs to be done, but why does it have to be my child?’ I felt the same.” A few months after becoming Student Council President, her son gave a…

View original post 2,119 more words

Advertisements

Activist Interviews #1: A Conversation with 황정은

One of the most valuable aspects of my time in Korea so far has been getting to meet and work with Korean activists. Since I first began learning about the Korean social movement, I’ve been interested in the differences between activism in Korea and the US; unlike in the US, where people constantly cycle in and out of their activism, it’s normal to see Korean activists dedicate their life to the cause (for example, seven years, which would be enough to earn you respect in the US context, is enough to prove you have some interest in activism in Korea). Through this series, I hope to shed further light on the inner workings of the Korean social movement by profiling the people who make it all possible.

1414128055942My first interview of the series is with황정은(Hwang Jeong-eun), the communications coordinator for the International Strategy Center. She has been working for the organization since 2010. Her work has included assisting with the translations of Latin America and 21st Century Socialism and Food Policy for People from English to Korean. As someone who has long had ties to the social movement but only recently decided to make it her central focus a few years ago, she’s a relative newcomer to the activist lifestyle, so I was particularly interested in hearing what it was that had inspired her to do so.

What first inspired your interest in activism and the Korean social movement?

I didn’t have an interest in it when I was a student, especially middle and early high school. Then when I was in high school, one of my sisters entered university, at which time she joined the student movement. At the time, she spent almost all of her time at school, and I also stayed at school, so we couldn’t meet that often. But when I entered university, I met her often and I could see what she was doing.

My sister was the one that exposed me to the movement. At first it was just listening to what she told me. She told me stories that I couldn’t hear on TV or the radio, or even from books or the professors at my school. Then, she invited me to meet the people around her. For example, she invited me to an event where all the student activists from each province gathered together. Seeing so many students protesting against what they thought were injustices and demanding justice was kind of a cultural shock. So that was really… I felt different. I could see the difference between the world I thought was real and the world that I was actually living in. Little by little, my sister exposed me to other worlds that the mainstream media didn’t show me. Then, when she graduated from university, she started work with the Korean Peasant League (KPL). Sometimes they participated in international solidarity work, so I helped translate into English when the staff from other countries came to Korea to meet the KPL. So at that time I could see that more people – not just students, and not only Koreans, but international people as well – are working for social change. But the first inspiration I had in this work was from my sister.

My second source of inspiration comes from Haesook Kim [the founder of the ISC]. My sister introduced me to Haesook in 2008, because I could speak English and Haesook wanted to focus on international solidarity. Through her, I started to realize that I was caught in the middle, ideologically. I called myself gray, because I had one foot in one side, another in another side. For example, in college, I majored in American trade and commerce. When I studied these things, I believed everything my professor told me about economics and capitalism, or that was the right way. But then when I met my sister or Haesook, they said something completely different, which is that free trade is not fair because there is hegemony, militarism, imperialism, and so on. When I heard that, I thought that seemed right, too. Haesook helped me to realize that I didn’t have any stance; I just went back and forth. When I realized that, it felt weird, like I didn’t have any opinions of my own, which was hard to face. But she helped me to see that it’s about choice. She taught me that if I don’t help this person, if I don’t choose one side, that’s also the choice that I don’t choose, and that I don’t help that person. She posed the questions that made me think, and when I realized that I was stuck in the middle, and I should make a decision which way to follow, she helped guide me on that path. She’s still guiding me.

What was a particularly important moment to your politicization?

That period [of not being able to pick a side] was… I think it was the whole of university, so from 2001 until at least to 2010. So for about 10 years. At that time, I asked someone, “Why are you in the social movement?” And she said she had this pain in her heart when she sees injustice, or when she sees the people suffering from injustice. At that time I couldn’t understand what kind of feeling that was. Like, what pain in the heart? And then, in 2011, there was a national demonstration around 8/15 (Korean Independence Day). Every year there is a big demonstration in Korea. And at that time there was one man on the stage from Jeju island. He was talking about Gangjong Village and the naval base[1]. The problem had started four years ago, and it had been four years that Ganjong Village suffered from the problem. And when he said that, and explained the situation in Gangjong – at that time, I could feel the pain. I was listening, and he was almost crying – and then it felt like an arrow that went through my body, giving me pain. Because I didn’t know that all that had happened. People in Jeju island suffered for four years, and I didn’t know about it. So I think that moment was very important for me. And that time, I understood why people work so hard in the social movement. I think that was the third inspiration that caused me to join the social movement.

Why do you believe international solidarity is an important issue to focus on?

The relationship between people is the most important thing, but people who are living in the capitalist society can’t see [those] relationships well. The capitalist system tries to cut all the natural ties that people have to each other. So I think it’s important to remind people to see that we are all connected. If there is a problem in Korea, it’s not only limited [to] Korea, it’s connected to all other countries as well. And the problems in other countries can affect Korea as well. So the way to solve this problem is to build solidarity with people among all of the countries. Since we are all connected, if the problem is solved in only one country, it doesn’t mean that every country’s problem is solved. The goal should not be about making Korea the best in the world, but rather about allowing every one to live well together. So I think it’s important to see the connection between people and between countries. In Korean education, you’re taught that you have to be the best to be a successful person. But if you start to see things as connected, you cannot live well by yourself. You have to have people around you. It’s about cooperation, not competition.

What is your favorite memory of working in the social movement?

There are a couple of them. The first memory that comes to mind is when we had a candlelight vigil and demonstration in 2008 protesting the importing of mad cow beef. At that time, I wasn’t working for the ISC and I didn’t call myself an activist, but I participated in the action with my sister. There were a lot of people, and we occupied the whole road in Chongno, so that no cars could pass. At that time I felt so good. And a similar thing happened last month, at a protest for Sewolho in September. People were trying to make it to Gwanghwamun Square, but the police cars were blocking their way. It was pouring rain, but people kept shouting, and refused to leave, because they wanted to stay with the victims’ families. So I stayed as well, and I also shouted at the police. But in both of these memories, because we were all together, that made us powerful. So I think my favorite memories are of when I participated in demonstrations, because at that time I could feel the power of the people. I’m actually very easily frightened, so I usually don’t break any laws. I don’t even cross the street when it’s a red light, because I’m afraid that one policeman will see me and say, “You broke the law!” I’m that easily frightened. But when I’m with other people like that, I don’t feel that fear, because we’re together.

How do you sustain your political commitment, and how do you overcome the difficulties that come with living a sustained existence to struggle?

Up until last year, I was working in a hagwon, and I was always busy then. There were classes I had to teach, but I also had to call tons of parents to talk about their kids. So it was really difficult because there is only one reason I did it – I loved teaching, but I did that work for the money. So I couldn’t find a lot of value in the work I did. The teaching part I loved, but the rest was so difficult. And sometimes it even felt like I was going in the wrong direction. Like, I felt that it’s not a good way to educate kids, but I had to do it, because the hagwon wanted me to do it and I had to do it in order to get paid. So at the time I could make enough money, but I wasn’t happy at all. Then, I quit my job and started to work at the ISC. Sometimes I think it’s busier – like, I have a lot more work. Sometimes I work during the weekend, and I go home late. But I know why I do it. And I know the value my work has. So having that belief gives me the strength to go through these physical difficulties. And if I have some questions or concerns, there are always people around me I can count on. The relationships at my workplace before were good but they weren’t deep. We got along well, we went on trips together, we talked about a lot about work, but it was hard for us – me, especially – to share deep questions or ideas. But now, working in the ISC, if I have questions, they are always open to sharing and talking about our thoughts. I think that’s helped me make it through the difficulties.

It’s very hard work though. To be honest, sometimes, I feel very tired, and I don’t want to do this work. There was even a time that I felt like – what am I doing? Am I doing the right thing, or… is it possible for us to do these things? But then, you can go back to history, to people who lived through history. For example, during the age of slavery – slaves didn’t know when they would get freedom, but some of them were working for freedom, even though they didn’t know if they would live to see the result. So it’s important for me to contribute to the path going forward. Right now I cannot see the outcome, but I believe that I am contributing or that I am helping the way to progress. But there are moments, still I have moments, where I wonder if this work that I do right now, that makes me tired – is it worth doing? Still there are times. But then I ask the others – I have this kind of questions, I have this kind of concern – and the people around me give me some advice, or strength, so that I can move on. That’s what I call “people insurance.” I think [international solidarity] is a very big issue. It’s going to be a very long way. And it’s not a rosy road. But, I think – I believe it’s worth doing. And I hope I can contribute – even a little – to progress.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in political work or as an activist, and how did you learn it?

I think that it’s all about relationships. Before, I pursued other things in my life, like economic stability, or providing for my own family, and no one else. But after working in the movement, I started to learn that there are more important things than money, or my own family – my family’s still very important to me, but it ‘s not more important – it has an equal level of importance. I think I learned this because at first, other people in the movement showed me. They showed me with their actions. They weren’t my family, and they weren’t even my friends at first, but when they met me, they made me feel like I was their family. There was no calculation in the relationship, like whether the relationship would have any kind of benefit for them. So that made me think that if society were full of this kind of people who know the value of relationships, then the world would be a much better place than it is now. These days, in the case of my friends who are working in companies, they sometimes talk about how their relationships with their coworkers are so shallow, so they don’t want to meet them after work or during the weekend. So to my friends, I try to explain that there is a different kind of relationship that people can have, based on shared values, or thought, or even life. But it’s hard for people in modern society to have that kind of relationship. I hope that other people can have more meaningful, deep relationships, so they can feel like they belong to something to something somewhere. I think that’s the most important lesson.

 How can people who want to support the Korean social movement provide support?

I think being a part of the social movement is also people who want to change society into a better world. And I think that to change society, we have to change ourselves as well. People, wherever they are, who want to support the social movement, whether in their own country or for other country, they can start from small things. They can start small in their daily life by reading the newspaper and they can start telling other people about what they’ve read. And while they’re doing those things, they’ll meet people who have the same interests. And that’s how community’s made. As they’re doing those things, they’ll learn more about domestic issues, and then they will know they’re not the only ones fighting against injustice or discrimination. And they will continue to meet other people, until finally they meet international society. So, they can start small, and that will lead to people who can help them and lead them further.

 

[1] The village of Gangjong on Jeju island has been resisting the US military plans to build a naval base there for the past four years.

60만번의 트라이/600,000th Try

60만번의 트라이 (or ‘600,000th Try’) is an independent Korean documentary film about the rugby team of Osaka Chosun High School, one of 140 schools in Japan to offer a Korean ethnocentric education for the country’s Korean-ethnic population. On the surface, it’s got all the trappings of a successful sports film; a ragtag yet charismatic group of players, underdog status, surprise injuries, the occasional butting of heads, and (most importantly) a deep-rooted cause to play for. What makes this movie so great though is that in this case, the cause that fuels their fire is triumphing against the years of material and social discrimination that Korean ethnic Japanese have faced (and continue to face even now). On September 24th, 2014, I was able to attend a free screening of the film through the ISC’s relationship with 북녘어린이영양빵공장사업본부, a social enterprise that partners funders in South Korea to a factory in North Korea that manufactures bread for North Korean schoolchildren (a program that, sadly, has not been able to continue since the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations came to power). Since they have been unable to continue their original enterprise, the organization has focused instead on educational and awareness initiative, including film screenings such as this one.

I connected instantly to the movie on a surface level because the film’s main focus, the spirited group of boys making up Chosun High’s rugby team, reminded me of my own high school students last year. From screaming into a pillow over a pretty girl to practically killing each other via an intense game of chicken-fight during school sports day and offering the director a jacket to keep warm, I kept flashing back to countless similar interactions I’d had with my own students last year(both heartwarming and blood-boiling) . Yet the film manages to capture much more than just the natural charisma of its adolescent stars. Through rugby, director 박사유 is able to widen the audience’s perspective upon the conditions of 재일동포 in Japan as a whole, and the difficulties they face not only in gaining support as Koreans from Japan, but recognition from South Koreans as well.

Historically, the majority of Koreans emigrated to Japan in the period of 1930-1945 either as a result of Japanese occupation or to escape political suppression in South Korea (particularly due to the Jeju Massacre in 1948). While they were considered Japanese nationals until 1945 due to Japan’s attempt to completely absorb Korea, by 1948, North and South Korea had both been established, leaving Japanese residents, whom had left their homeland as a unified nation, in somewhat of a no-man’s land. Some elected to obtain South Korean citizenship, but for those who did not, they retained Chosun (or pre-divided) Korean citizenship, which, since South Korea barred those with Chosun citizenship from entering, by default meant closer ties with North Korea.

As the film was screened with Korean subtitles (and occasionally had Japanese audio), I was unable to entirely understand everything; yet I was nevertheless surprised by the amount I was able to understand, as well as the complex feelings it evoked in me as a fellow member of the transnational Korean diaspora currently grappling with my own understanding of the division of Korea. At one point during the film, a student recounts how, during an international rugby competition, he had told a New Zealand player that he was Korean, only to be rebuffed by one of the South Korean rugby players, who insisted that he was Japanese. When asked which one he identifies with, he replies resolutely that “I’m real Korean.” As a third-generation Korean American, it was somewhat startling to see other Korean foreign nationals whose paths diverged from Korea around the same time (or even earlier, in the case of fourth-generation 제일동포s) but under wildly different circumstances, and with wildly different results. The difference between their experiences and that of a typical Korean American is even built into the language used to identify the two; for example, whereas Korean Americans are usually referred to/usually refer to themselves at 재미교포 (je-mi-kyo-po), the individuals in the film all referred to themselves as 재일동포 (je-il-dong-po). While the first two characters, 재 (je) and 미/일 (me/il) merely serve to mark one’s location (미/”mi” for America and 일/”il” for Japan, respectively), the difference is that “교포” (kyopo) has a more ‘neutral,’ and thus a distanced connotation, while “동포” (dongpo) has connotations of compatriatism. In referring to themselves as “동포,” the individuals in the film were making a clear statement of ownership of their Korean identity. The distinction comes at an interesting time for me as I attempt to explore my own identity and relationship to Korea. Previously unaware of this distinction, I had always referred to myself as a “재미교포,” but after talking with Daehan, a fellow transnational Korean who resettled in Korea with the express purpose of engaging in shared struggle despite some of the difficulties, I can see how the practice of automatically referring to “재미”s as “교포”s discounts his identity, his presence in Korea, and the work he is committed to doing. I’m honestly not sure where I stand on the issue. Not having seven years of commitment here to claim like Daehan, and with my own complexes about being Korean, is “동포” something I can claim? Is it something I want to claim?

Perhaps what struck me most as I watched was the tight-knit sense of community amongst those in the film. Something that I found interesting was that the individuals in the film were by no means representative of the majority of the Korean ethnic Japanese population in Japan; most 재일동포 have attempted to assimilate into Japanese society, preferring to think of themselves as Japanese, attend Japanese school, and even pass as ethnic Japanese. In one poignant scene, some of the Osaka Chosun students bike around the neighborhood attempting to contact old friends who used to attend their school but have transferred to Japanese schools, asking them to attend a bonfire; at the end, they bike home alone. Yet, 박사유 also shows the vitality of the community through the many gatherings the community holds (which somehow always seem to end in a shirtless competition, a familiar sight based on my own outings in Korea). Through community, we endure and gain the strength to continue the struggle.

80dc5ee11952942c814b2e47c2dcbb31

Origins

When I first came to Korea, it was the summer of 2001 and I was ten years old. As a third-generation Korean American whose only tie to the country was the ddukguk my family ate on New Years Day, I was both excited and nervous about having absolutely no idea what to expect. Although I can’t remember what we did or where we went, I can recall the physical sensations of the oppressive humidity and smog that clung to the air, the never-ending confusion of a language I had no idea how to make sense of, and the awkward feeling that comes with meeting countless distant relatives that you had no idea existed and will probably never meet again. I left with a palpable feeling of relief and absolutely no desire to come back.

…Except I did, ten years later, to study abroad for a semester, for reasons which to this day I remain somewhat unsure of. Maybe I was beginning to realize that, despite seeing myself as “just American,” the label didn’t (or couldn’t) account for the accumulating reality of my lived experience. Maybe I was beginning to realize just how little I knew about my family’s history and, by extension, myself. Or perhaps it was because I, like Korea, had changed in the last ten years, perhaps enough to make a better match the second time around. The Korea I arrived to in 2011 was almost unrecognizable from the one I had left in 2001; I still got confused looks when I stumbled over words, but now there were a seemingly infinite number of themed cafes to hang out in, bars and nightclubs to frequent, kpop concerts to attend, and cheap shopping to do, as well as other foreigners to explore it all with. By sheer chance, I also found myself in classes that provided my first exposure to social issues in Korea; while school wasn’t high on my list of priorities, I couldn’t help but take notice of some of the things that came up, such as the government-sanctioned massacre in Gwangju in 1980and the self-immolation of labor activist and martyr Jeon Tae Il. As superficial and self-indulgent my experience was, it set off a desire to come back to Korea in the future.

After graduating from college, I returned to Korea for the third time on a yearlong English teaching assistantship grant with the Fulbright program. I was excited to be coming back, especially under such favorable conditions. I didn’t know where I’d be living, who I’d be teaching, or what my life would be like, but in comparison to other ETAs for whom it was their first time in Korea (or even outside of the US), I felt more confident this time than ever before. I also hoped to begin answering some of the questions spurred by my previous visits to rest, chief among them the question of Korea and its significance to me. Through Fulbright, I was able to meet and make friends with wonderful people I would never have had the chance to meet otherwise, travel throughout Korea, and most importantly, have my heart stolen by all 700 students at my all-boys high school. Yet, it still felt as if something were missing. Sensing that it had to do with the sudden lack of community work in my life, I got connected with the International Strategy Center and joined KHEP, their Korean History, Education, and Economics Program for foreigners interested in Korean civil society. I was excited to learn more and hear from individuals that I wouldn’t be able to meet and speak with on my own. It was an honor to meet with those who had experienced firsthand things I had only read about – the women responsible for the birth of Korea’s labor movement, witnesses of the Gwangju massacre, prisoners of conscience who had been imprisoned for more than 15 years, Korean farmers fighting for food sovereignty, and many others.

Yet, as I did, the hole that I thought I’d filled by joining the program began to grow even larger. The more I heard from these individuals about the magnitude of the struggles they’d faced, the more disconnected I felt my values were from the life I was living in Korea. I’d always known that my presence in Korea was tied to my privilege as a natural-born citizen of an English speaking country (and of America in particular), as well as the fact that (as in most structures of privilege) it was impossible to exist outside this structure. But the more I learned about the immense sacrifices everyday Korean people had made in the name of their values (financial security, freedom, even their lives), the less comfortable I felt with my own way of life. How could I accept yet another speaker referring to Korea as “the miracle on the Han” once I knew the reality of the inhumane labor conditions and violence against women that had made such a ‘miracle’ possible? How could I feel comfortable calling myself a ‘cultural ambassador’ once I knew the history of American violence perpetrated against Korea? And most importantly, how could I ignore the door that had been opened in my own mind to further questions, which led to uncertain but undoubtedly important destinations?

In August of this year, I returned to Korea for the fourth time, this time independently and with the purpose of spending the coming year living Seoul in order to meet, learn from, and build community with Korean activists and the Korean social movement. For the next year, I will be working part-time and interning part-time with the International Strategy Center[1]. Through the Strategy Center, I will also be participating in three externships with local community organizations, the “Let’s Play Together!” daycare center, Yongdeungpo Urban Agriculture Network, and Seoul Women’s Association community library. I created this blog as a place to document, process, and reflect on the things I’ll experience this year. I’ve been here for two months and my time has already been full of surprises, both fulfilling and challenging. I’ve signed my first ever apartment lease and dealt with ensuing apartment troubles, all in Korean. I’ve attended the first meeting between the Bolivian embassy with Korean civil society, and had the chance to hear representatives from several Latin American countries share their opinions on topics from Bolivia’s presidential election to the legacy of Hugo Chavez. I’ve survived and slowly learned how to tame a class of fifteen 4th-graders for 80 minutes every week (quite a change from my high school classes last year). I’ve attended the 1,000th protest held by the organization of families united against political imprisonment. And I know I’ll be experiencing much more, thanks to the inspiration of the Korean people and communities who inspire me with their everyday acts of bravery, resistance, and hope.

The Korea and my former self of thirteen years ago seem almost unrecognizable to me now, but I like to think that we’re both growing towards one another, and towards a better society (hence the current title of this blog, ‘민중을 위한’, or ‘for the people’). It’s not necessarily so easy or clear-cut as I’d like it to be, but as the people I’ve met in the past year have taught me, the important things are worth the struggle. 투쟁!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

[1] I would like to note my utmost gratitude to the members of the ISC for the time and effort they have extended in allowing me to work with them and for all of the generosity they have shown which I could never hope to repay but has so far been the biggest lesson in community of all.