North Korean defector’s reflections on the Olympics

Last week, Park Ui-Song, a thirty-year-old, took a break from his university classes in Seoul to travel to the Gangneung Ice Arena to watch some Olympic competitions. Park, who asked that his name be changed to protect the identity of his family that remains in North Korea, shared the following reaction:

I was hoping that [the outcome might be] starting a dialogue, that sort of humanizing theme would come through. Practically, the North Korean leaders have the power to improve the North-South relationship. I hate them, but they can bring change. So I also kept a close eye on the North Korean leaders like Kim Yo Jong [Kim Jong-Un’s sister] and South Korea President Moon Jae-in. I had a lot of hope and expectation when they showed each other what I thought looked like respect. I want reunification, even though many in the generation below me do not. Of course, I have a family that I’d like to see.

But watching the cheerleaders in particular—actually, watching the media watching the cheerleaders—and seeing how much attention the media gave them and how they were received was disappointing. Their actions weren’t natural. They looked like dolls. Or like actors in a play. And yes, they were very much playing their roles, but I struggled with how the rest of the world was so enamored with them and their looking like robots. At the hockey game [between North Korea and Switzerland], they yelled slogans about unity and sang old Korean folk tunes. They chanted We are one! There might be a desire to unify but it’s not their real intention. The chanting is an order. I do feel sorry for them because they are victims of a dictatorship. They are being used as a tool.

I wish the global audience could separate the North Korean regime and the North Korean people, which I know is very hard to do. But I wish people could try to have that perspective. In many ways, the North Korean people are just like other people—they fall in love, they have their own culture. Once you remove the regime, they’re not so different.

There’s some nostalgia. I’ve been in South Korea for three years, and seeing [North Korean Olympic attendees] on TV, there is an element of homesickness. I still think North Korea is in some ways a beautiful place, and I still identify myself closer to North Korean than South Korean because I spent 26 years of my life in the North. I don’t know if that will gradually change, sometimes I ask myself if it needs to.

I left to go back to Seoul feeling conflicted about it all. Kim [Jong-Un] clearly tried to create an environment for dialogue and also brighten up the world’s perception of the North at these Games, I don’t know if he was successful. Maybe it’s fifty-fifty.

[Esquire]

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