Why did you start volunteering with North Korean defectors?
I decided to volunteer because I wanted to connect with someone different from me. Cultural exchange ultimately comes down to two people talking, and that's what I was interested in.
What has been the most significant part of your volunteering experience?
The most profound experiences are often quite ordinary. For me, it was the way my students stopped being North Korean defectors in my mind and became ordinary people who are nevertheless extraordinary in their own ways. There was a moment when one little boy crooked a finger and whispered that he knew Chinese from when he was passing through China. He said it with pride, but his older sister shushed him. Their stories — some happy, many sad — did so much to let me understand who they were as people, not merely as defectors.
How much did you know about North Korea before coming to South Korea?
I knew pretty much what the Western media chooses to portray, so to me North Korea was a belligerent threat and its people were to be pitied. I don’t mean to say that North Korea doesn't have its share of problems, but pity has a way of dehumanizing people by casting them as passive victims.
How has your understanding of the North Korean issue changed since working with North Korean defectors? One day, a little boy drew a picture of me stepping on a landmine. It shocked me, but when we sat down and talked about it — and when he saw that it hurt me — there was this light bulb moment. That picture was never personal. It was simply what Americans are supposed to be doing when you draw pictures of them, taking propaganda as your guide. But all of that was defused so quickly when he saw that it bothered me. Once you recognize the humanity in another person, however different, connecting with them is inevitable.
Why are you Running 4 Resettlement?
The idea that all of the defectors who make it to South Korea live happily ever after – that's not a reality. It's important to look beyond the 'exciting' part of helping defectors, which is the drama of their travels out of North Korea, through China and finally to South Korea. I think the truth — that society often isn't permeable to defectors upon entry – is hard because it asks us (and native South Koreans) to take a hard look what needs to change for reunification to be possible.
I'm Running 4 Resettlement because I think resettlement is the half of the battle, and it doesn't receive enough attention. I want my NKD friends to have more than the minimum. Like anyone, they deserve to thrive.