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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Understanding North Korea


UC Davis East Asian studies department co-hosts colloquium on North Korea

North Korea remains one of the most mysterious countries in the world, even today. It is only understood through film, personal testimonies and the small amount of political information available. Due to this lack of factual information, North Korean culture is often only visualized through others’ perspectives. Last Thursday, the East Asian Studies department at UC Davis, in collaboration with several other departments, introduced five speakers who offered unique viewpoints and experiences relating to North Korea.

One of the speakers, Jin-Hye Jo, is a defector who fully experienced the adversities of being a North Korean citizen. Her first escape to China was at the young age of 10, with her mother and younger sister during the famine in North Korea. Since then she has escaped four times. She is now 28 years old.

Growing up in authoritarian North Korea, Jo was never taught about identity, freedom of choice and self. As a female, she was always required to put her family members first. Now that she resides outside of North Korea, she better comprehends the concept of privilege and countries’ differing perspectives. For example, in North Korea, her ability to eat in a time of famine was not a right, but a privilege.

“When I saw people protesting Trump saying, ’not my president,’ I could not imagine doing that. In North Korea, you would die,” Jo said.

Because she survived her childhood without basic human rights, she is able to indulge in life’s simplicities in a way that most U.S. citizens cannot.

During the colloquium, she painted the audience a picture of North Korea’s current condition. She described the environment as a technological halt, making the country look the same as it did in the 1950s, with a small amount of progress in comparison. She ended her speech with the hope that one day South and North Korea will no longer be separated.

Through listening to personal experiences from refugees like Jo, outsiders can gain insight on the reality of living in North Korea. Unfortunately, they are still unable to entirely immerse themselves into her perspective. Literature, however, serves as an outlet for people to gain some level of this understanding.

Adam Johnson, a writer and professor at Stanford University, was another speaker at the colloquium. Johnson is the author of The Orphan Master’s Son — a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a man living in North Korea. Johnson wanted to create a way for readers to empathize with this character, but had a difficult time imagining the realities of living in North Korea. For example, he tried to go hungry for days, ultimately realizing he would never fully understand food insecurity; there is a difference between having the choice to eat and having no food to eat at all.

“In trying to imagine the perspective of someone that far from me, it was not the cultural ideas that I tried to imagine, because those I can research or ask my friends. It was the conceptual ideas. For example, we all believe in freedom, but that’s a very complex abstraction. When North Koreans encounter the word ‘freedom,’ it is very difficult for them to try to absorb what that word means,” Johnson said. “I had people ask me if the people were ‘really weeping’ after Kim Jong Il’s death, and that is a very Western question. For us, there are two options. We can choose to be Republican or Democrat, but what if in North Korea, the truth and the lie are folded together in way that is weird for us to understand? That is what I try to understand.”

Though Johnson’s novel can give American audiences a better understanding of North Korea’s current state, it is still difficult to fully grasp the realities of living under such a strict regime. And, while it is rare to hear stories directly from a refugee, it is virtually impossible to hear from a North Korean citizen.

Kyungah Ham, a South Korean artist, discovered a way to resolve the discrepancies between the two cultures. In fact, she is able to achieve this cross-border communication through her art. Ham sends her digital art to North Korea, and in return receives an embroidered interpretation of that art from various Korean artisans. Through this, she is able to illustrate their lives in an abstract style.

She discovered that people’s different cultural beliefs were represented by their interpretations of color. After sending her pastel-colored digital art to North Korea, she received work with more vibrant colors.

“When I choose the colors, I want to make something brilliant. I want people to come and see these colorful and beautiful surfaces. No one will doubt who made this art. No one will doubt that North Koreans made this because it is made in a very huge scale that only they can embroider. They are very precise,” Ham said.

Initially, she did not want her artwork to come back with extremely bright colors, and it took her some time to accept the changes. If she wanted to continue her projects, she had to acquiesce to their artistic interpretations.

“Because they work with no light or no electric systems, sometimes I did not like the results that came back. I did not want to even look at it. There was so much high color contrast and saturation that I could not stand it. Later I realized that because they work in the darkness, they like more vibrant colors of yellow and red. Not the pastel art that I send them,” Ham said.

All of her artwork consists of meticulous embroidery — each stitch sewn by hand. Some of her most astonishing pieces include large, detailed chandeliers with hidden messages and strings hanging past the canvas like tassels. The loose strings are supposed to represent personal expression outside the boundaries of governmental restriction.

“What if North and South Korea unify and North Korea’s history disappears?” Ham asked. “I think my art can record their lives in case this happens. Almost like a time capsule.”


Written by: Becky Lee arts@theaggie.org


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