It has been more than a month since we arrived in Seoul. Michi and I slowly started to meet various people here. We have visited Michi’s colleague from Harvard, Moto, and his family a couple of times. I have started my language exchange with a poli sci graduate student of Yonsei University, and also met my friends from SIPA.
Among all, meeting with two North Korean “defectors” through Moto was a great experience. We joined Moto’s family when they were invited to dinner by a couple who escaped from North Korea separately about 1.5 years ago. We heard incredible stories about their escapes from North Korea, their lives in North Korea, China and here in Seoul, their families, friends, work etc. Owing to my poor Korean, I often had to depend on Moto’s interpretation, but it was great to be able to directly exchange words and feelings with them.
Hearing this North Korean friend of ours would be awarded at the Yibuk-Odo Chong (The Office of Northern Five Provinces, a part of S. Korean government) the following Saturday, we also asked him to let us sit in the ceremony. It was the first time for me to hear about, and to visit that particular government office. It is just like the Republic of China government under the KMT rule, which designated a governer to each province in Mainland China. The building is quite big, and that day there were around 300 people in the auditorium, presumably all North Koreans and/or their families except us and South Korean governors for the North Korean provinces. The ceremony was part of activities of what they call “Tong-il Hakkyo (Unification School),” in which North Koreans in Seoul (by the way, the S. Korean government often call them “Settomin (New Land People)” instead of “Tolbukcha (defectors)” learn about South Korean society and receive job training. The ceremony started with South Korean national anthem and pledge of allegiance. Five people (one person each for each province) were awarded, including our friend. Right after that, we (a few foreigners) were called upon to the stage. It was totally out of the blue, but the S. Korean officials spontaneously decided to use us, especially Michi, the only white guy, for their propaganda. We handed flowers to our friend on the stage, and while I quickly retreated to the backstage, Moto and Michi had to give greetings in Korean there. While Michi and I were still in shock, the ceremony kept on going, and two South Korean officials gave a speech. One of them, a university president, basically showed his excessive love for capitalism, encouraging the audience to work hard for greater material success. After the ceremony, they had an “election” for North Korean committee members, but obviously it was just confusing and badly organized.
Lesson: Be prepared to give a short speech in Korean whenever and wherever.