Friday, 24 August 2007

The Children They Left Behind

The Korea Times
German Longs for Reunion With Her Husband in NK
By Sa Eun-young, Lee Ye-ha

A German woman has expressed hope that the upcoming inter-Korean summit will be a breakthrough toward meeting her husband, Hong Ok-geun, 73, who was sent back to North Korea 46 years ago.

"I believe that my long-time desire will come true now that talks between South and North Korea are taking place," Renate Hong, 70, told a news conference in Seoul Thursday.

The now elderly Hong first met her North Korean husband when she was 18 and they were both students at a university in East Germany. The two fell in love and married after dating five years.

Hong, however, has not seen her husband since North Korea forcibly called back students studying abroad in 1961. They had been married for one year and Hong was pregnant with their second child.

At first, the couple were able to keep in touch through letters, but all contact was cut off after two years and despite numerous attempts Hong was unable to learn about her husband's well being.

It was only this year that she heard the long-awaited news that her husband was alive. According to the German Red Cross, Hong Ok-geun is a retired scholar living in Hamheung, South Hamgyeong Province.

With new hopes of being reunified with her husband after nearly half a century, Hong visited Cheong Wa Dae Thursday to deliver a petition to President Roh Moo-hyun, which asks for his support in opening a way to meet her husband.

Also attached was a petition Hong hoped President Roh would pass on to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il when they meet for the inter-Korean summit slated for Oct. 2-4.

Although it was not easy raising two children on her own, Hong told reporters that her sons were her source of strength and she was happy being able to raise the sons of the person she loved.

Hong's greatest desire is that her two sons will be able to see their father even if she is unable to see him.

A documentary was made last January depicting Hong's story, ``Renate Hong's Longing Song for Her Husband--I hope to see you again." An encore will be aired on Q Channel at 9 p.m. Monday.

Hong's schedule in Korea includes meeting former President Kim Dae-jung and visiting Mount Geumgang in North Korea before leaving Seoul next Friday.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Wanted: Allies

Since I began conducting interviews at the start of my third week here, I've been feeling drained of life, energy, emotion. While I haven't had much luck finding interviewees, those I have found have a lot to day, interviews typically lasting two hours, and even two-and-a-half on one occasion.

I've been conducting interviews with for sub-populations:
-mixed-race Koreans
-mixed-race Korean-American expatriates
-Korean college students(re: their attitudes about race and multiculturalism)
-service providers that work with mixed-race Koreans

And, the stories I'm getting from all four have made me feel trapped.

On Saturday, I interviewed two young men, one of mixed white/Korean heritage; the other, of mixed black/Korean heritage.

"We don't think we've experienced very much racism," they told me early in the interview.

But, when we discussed, later, why they wanted to move to U.S., I probed:

"Would you want to eventually come back to Korea?"

"No," they answer, "there's no opportunity for us to succed here. Korean society will only care about us if we become celebrities."

And there was also the mixed-race Korean-American activist I had lunch with. He moved here seven years ago, changed his names from American to Korean, and has been building a life here and doing what he can to empower the native mixed-race population.

"I don't really feel like I have many allies here," he told me over bi bim bap.

" many do you have?"

*Long, long awkward pause*


" organization?"

*Long, long awkward pause*

"One person," he answers, "...and, actually, she lives in Okinawa [Japan]."

What's become clear to me is that there is a political and social agenda to erase Korea's mixed-race population. It's why I've had such a hard finding mixed-race people(over the age of 18) to interview. It's why the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, with a team of 10 researchers, could only identify 50 mixed-race people(many under 18) during a seven-month study it conducted in 2003.

Why this erasure?

In this society that celebrates its, “unified bloodline,” mixed-race people embody the disruption of that bloodline--they are living legacies of the sexual exploitation of Korean women by foreign men. And Korean society just doesn't want to deal with the way it is complicit in this exploitation. It would rather ship these swarthy babies to the U.S. for adoption and create a social climate in which people of mixed-race who have the misfortune of growing up here can't possibly imagine leading fulfilling lives in Korea, yearning desperately to immigrate to the U.S. at first chance, or exiling themselves to lives of social isolation.

The reason I've been feeling so down for the past couple weeks, I've realized, is because there is movement here before. I was not working on any more sunny of an issue during the 10 weeks I spent in Washington, D.C. before arriving in Seoul. But, I was part of a tight-knit, hard-working activist community. Here, there is only erasure and silence.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Daughters of Dictators

You could call her Korea's Hilary Clinton or Seoul's Virgin Queen.

Tomorrow is the nationwide primary election for Korea's right-leaning Grand National Party. On this Saturday night, the last-minute speeches have been made, and tomorrow conservative Korea will choose between former Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, the daughter of assasinated South Korean Dictator Park Chung Hee. While Park has lost her front runner status, with Lee leading the polls for weeks, there's still the chance of an upset victory given the volatility of Korean politics.

Park, who has never married, was Chairman of her Grand National Party until this past May. Her father is remembered both as the father of Korean industrialization and as a ruthless dictator. After her mother was assasinated in in 1974, Geun-hye was regarded as the nation's first lady. During this time, pro-democracy activists (political opponents of her father's military dictatorship) continued to be subject to arbitrary detention and torture, and human rights were considered subordinate to economic development.

How, given all that, you might wonder, is she still a viable--indeed, a leading--candidate for the Korean presidency. With the economic disasters of the 1990s and the leadership scandals of the current Roh administration, many Koreans have grown nostalgic for the economic growth and "strong" leadership of Geun-hye's father's regime.

And, Geun-hye isn't the only female descendent of a brutal dictator to rise to politial power. In Italy, former topless model Alessandra Mussoli(yes, the granddaughter of that Mussolini) won a seat in parliament in 1992 as a member of neofascist Movimento Sociale Italiano. She later
founded a new party of the extreme right, Libertà di Azione ("Freedom of Action"), and recently responded to criticism by trans-gender Italian M.P. candidate Vladimir Luxuria, sayng, "it's better to be a fascist than a faggot."

It's interesting, I think, when you look at a sampling of the roots of some of the world's most politically powerful women.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi's father was the mayor of Baltimore fo twelve years.

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, current Presdient of the Philippines, is the daughter of a highly esteemed former President.

Indira Gandhi, who served three consecutive terms as India's first(and only to date) female Prime Minister, was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru and grandaughter of Motilal Nehru, famous Indian nationalist leaders.

P.S. FOUR wonderful interviews today. Exhausted. And airconditioning has been on full blast.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Five Generations On, Mexico's Koreans Long for Home

I woke up at 11:45 A.M., a half hour ago, to fully blasting airconditioning.
This morning, an article from today's Chosun Ilbo, the Korean newspaper that has historically provided the most coverage on mixed-race issues, I've heard from a couple different sources.
Five Generations On, Mexico's Koreans Long for Home

A fourth generation Korean-Cuban, Patricia Lim, 39, lives on the outskirts of Havana, about half an hour drive west of downtown. The paint on the outside of her shabby house wore off long ago, rendering the walls colorless. Inside, Lim and her mother Cristina Chang Kim, 79, warmly welcome a reporter from the Chosun Ilbo. An old fan rattles away on the ceiling. Looking at the stained refrigerator, radio, and decades-old appliances, one wonders if any of them work properly. Just outside a window a junked car slouches in the dust.

Even after four generations Lim retains Korean features on her face, her black eyes stretched sideways. "Even though I speak no Korean, I think of myself as a Korean," she says. She is one of the descendants of 1,033 Koreans who left Incheon in 1905 to settle farms in Mexico producing henequen, a fiber used to make rope and twine. After some time in Mexico, Lim's grandfather headed for Cuba in 1921. "You can make money if you work on a sugar cane farm," someone told him, and he ended up in a Cuba-bound ship. Sadly the price of sugar plunged in Cuba and Lim's grandfather had to return to the dreaded henequen farm.

Cuban descents of Korean immigrants who worked on henequen farms in Mexico. Patricia Lim (far right) is a fourth generation Korean-Cuban, the others are fifth generation. As the generations advance the descendants appear less Korean.

Erdi, 21, is a fifth generation Korean-Cuban. His grandfather married a Mexican and his father a Cuban. At first glance Erdi appears to be fully Latin. Dark skin, big eyes, curly hair, and of course not a word of Korean. "It’s true part of me has Korean blood but I think I'm a Cuban for sure," he says. Time is dissolving the Korean DNA in the descendants of the Henequens, as the farmers called themselves. They are, technically, Latin Americans, not just in appearance but in their way of thinking, culture, customs and language. A Cuba-Korea culture center was built in 1921 that taught Korean writing and history in an attempt to remind the descendants of their heritage. But lack of funding shuttered the center and now it's hard to find a Henequen offspring who can speak the language.

About 800 descendants of Korean henequen farmers live around Havana, Matanzas and other areas of Cuba. Most work in farms; some toil in small factories. A few have advanced to specialized jobs - a doctor, a teacher, a car engineer -- but even they are not too well off. The situation is not too different for the 20,000 to 30,000 descendants living in Mexico. Ulises Park is a rare wealthy Henequen son. A third generation Korean-Mexican, Park, 68, owns a large gas inspection office in Yucatan and also chairs a Korean descendants group. Most of the descendants struggle day to day as wage earners. More than a few of the Henequen offspring long for their native land on the other side of the globe. During the Japanese occupation Cuba's Henequen immigrants gathered spoonfuls of rice and sent the "independence fund" to the provisional government.

Even now Koreans in Cuba gather every Independence Movement Day on March 1 to eat and share Korean food. Mexican-Koreans also kept this year's Independence Movement Day, and on Sunday held an early celebration for Independence Day in Yucatan. These days about 300 Korean descendants are studying their ancestral language at a Korean school in Mexico. More and more students want to go to Korea and learn the culture and technology. "Even though our faces are Mexican, we have Korean blood in us," says Seidy, 27, a fourth generation Korean-Mexican and president of a Korean descendants group in Merida. "There are many students who want to go to Korea."

Link to Original Article

oh no he didn't

It's 4 A.M. I've been up late working on an essay.

My landlord has just turned the air conditioning off again.

You cannot survive Seoul summers without air conditioning. But somehow, my landlord thinks it's ok to turn off the air conditioning during the hours when he assumes people are probably sleeping or out of their rooms(roughly 2 A.M.-5 P.N.) because he is a cheap ass. Why do I call him a cheap ass? Because the air conditioning is ALWAYS on when I go to complain on the second floor where he hides away in his office, pretending not to hear my first knocks on his door.

And then, he makes excuses, either
a)using complicated Korean, so I can't understand what he's saying
b)using really simple Korean, but assuming I am stupid and won't know that he's bullshitting me. I.e.: "Oh, the ajuma is up there cleaning right now. I'll turn it on later." Three hours later...still waiting.

I just haven't had any luck with landlords. During my semester in London, we all dealt constantly with the ineptitude of our rental agency, Central Estates. Our agent, Joyce, it is a universally-agreed-upon truth, had the worst customer service skills any of us had ever encountered, ignoring our requests for repairs, never returning phone calls, and really, just being appalingly ridiculous. And, they charged me $160 to breaking one desk lamp that really couldn't have cost more than $20 or $30.

Since I have no scheduled interviews(yet), I will probably be in my weenie bin of a room all day tomorrow working on these damn essays and my air conditioning better be on. I will keep you updated on this important matter.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

the daily grind

Sorry, FSTK readers, but some fellowship application deadlines have been putting substantial blogging on the backburner.

I started phase 2 of my research today, waking up early(9:20 A.M.) to conduct some interviews over at Ediya Coffee near the front gate of Sogang University.

I tracked through Sogang, Yonsei, and Ewha Universities, three of Korea's most prestigious universities(all conveniently located within a 15-20 minute walk of each other where I live in Sinchon), on Monday afternoon, posting flyers that promised free coffee and English practice for any student willing to do an interview with me about multiculturalism in Korea.

I've only had a few bites so far, but the first bite called up two friends who I interviewed after we finished our iced coffees and mochas. Just those three interviews have been enormously helpful in giving me insight into how Koreans think about race; though my first interviewee thought that multiculturalism meant the different Korean regional cultures, and immediately began singing his praises of Cholla-do, a region in southwestern Korea, where his mother's family is from.

After the interviews, I head over to City Hall for a meeting with a racial discrimination lawyer at the National Human Rights Commission. He wasn't much help, but he gave me a copy of 2003 report on mixed-race people published by the Commission. And my Mom, whose been worried about how I'll be able to work after she leaves next Tuesday, embarassingly harassed a London School of Economics intern into agreeing to translate for any interviews I do next week.

And Saturday evening, finally, I'll be interviewing a mixed-race male my age!

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

America's Comfort Women

I'll post some pictures and thoughts on today's Wednesday Demonstration for the comfort women tomorrow. But, for today's post, I wanted to share an interesting piece from the Christian Science Monitor.

I'm still in the process of translating and transcribing my first interview, but I'll put some thoughts on it up soon.

In criticizing Japan's history textbooks, Americans should think twice
By Jonathan Zimmerman
May 4, 2005

NEW YORK – Should history textbooks make you love your country? Most people would say "yes." And that's why textbooks inevitably distort the past - even here, in the good old USA. Americans like to think they've reckoned with their history, while other nations remain mired in propaganda and distortion. Americans should think again.

Consider the recent controversy over history textbooks in Japan. Last month, Chinese and Korean protesters took to the streets to condemn a new set of Japanese junior high school texts. The books omit mention of "comfort women," the roughly 200,000 females - mostly from Korea and China - whom the Japanese forced into sexual bondage during World War II.

But scour the textbooks that Americans use in schools, and you won't find any serious discussion of our own comfort women. I speak, of course, of female African-American slaves. Sure, today's textbooks - unlike earlier versions - contain lengthy descriptions and denunciations of American slavery. So far as I know, though, not a single commonly used textbook explains one of the most brutal aspects of the institution: coerced sexual relations. And I'm betting that most Americans would just as soon keep it that way.

Take the example of Harriet Jacobs, who was born into slavery in North Carolina in 1813. She was sold at the age of 12 to James Norcum, who soon began making sexual overtures to her.
As Jacobs later recalled in her memoir, Norcum told her that "I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things." And so she was. Although Jacobs occasionally managed to escape her owner's clutches, he did own her. To get sex from her, Norcum sometimes promised her new clothes and other presents; at other times, he simply held a razor to her throat. And that, my fellow Americans, is what we call rape.

You do the math. Between 1850 and 1860, the number of blacks in slavery rose by about 20 percent. But the number of enslaved "mulattoes" - that is, mixed-raced slaves - rose by a remarkable 67 percent, as historian Joel Williamson has calculated. To put it most bluntly: Black slaves were getting lighter in skin, because white owners were raping them. It's really that simple - and that awful.

As the great African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass recounted in his autobiography, the black female slave was "at the mercy of the fathers, sons, or brothers of her master." Black women were also abused by slave traders, who often raped them before selling them to the next white man - and the next round of sexual coercion. Undoubtedly there were slaves who may have chosen to have sex with their owners. But what does it mean to "choose" sex, when you know that the wrong choice might get you sold, or even killed?

Some masters seem to have treated their slaves like spouses, sharing living quarters and doting upon the children of these liaisons. More often, though, they simply pretended that it all never happened. So did the masters' white wives and daughters, who turned a blind eye to what was occurring right under their noses.

And so do we. How many American children know that Thomas Jefferson, father of our Declaration of Independence, fathered children by his slave? And how many American parents want their children to know that?

Let's imagine that a coalition of West African countries - say, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast - staged demonstrations against American history textbooks, demanding that the books include our sordid history of sexual coercion against black people. I think most Americans would scoff at "outside interference" and invoke their own patriotic imperatives.

In other words, they'd behave just like the Japanese. Defending the omission of comfort women from schoolbooks, the Japanese society for History Textbook Reform argued that other nations have no right to define the Japanese past. Only Japan can do that, a statement from the society says, because history aims at "deepening love towards our country."

And that's precisely the problem. Of course the Japanese should admit the terrible harm they inflicted upon Chinese and Korean comfort women between 1937 and 1945. But we also need to acknowledge our own African-American comfort women, who were sexually enslaved for more than two centuries. It might not make us feel more patriotic, but at least it would be true.

• Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University's Steinhardt School of Education. He is the author of 'Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools.'