Week Four: Touch and Go and Something More – Rebecca Kim and Yehdahm Kweon

This week marks the halfway point for our Duke Engage experience. To be sure there have been plenty of ups and downs. For the most part, we’ve gotten used to the unpredictability of the school’s schedule and have begun to adjust appropriately on the go. And, getting comfortable and learning to problem-solve quickly gave us the opportunity to understand the students on a personal level.

Many of them, as mentioned before, spend most of the year away from parents and family without the affection or care that come with family and support. So, seeing these students brighten up or enjoy our presence was both rewarding and worrying. More than anything, these students really seemed to want attention, whether through encouraging comments on completing worksheets or asking curious questions. Many of them started to share parts of their day or their emotions that they felt even without prompting. Slowly I felt like I was familiar with their dislikes and likes, idiosyncrasies, and other traits that we couldn’t pick up earlier in our interactions. At the same time I didn’t know what our roles were really supposed to be here at Kumkang. We wanted to be supportive emotionally and pragmatically— in the academic aspects of the teaching— but kids could very much become attached. With some of the students, we spend close to eight hours together. The others as well, the more we share and communicate and listen, begin to ask if we are leaving, if we are coming back, when we will be coming back and so on. Even if the program continues, the same group of Duke Engagers will not be coming back to the school. These students’ questions have really made me question what our impact will be and what might be both the products and consequences left behind.

As we continue to teach and try our best to carry out the tangible goals week by week, we came across another difficult issue. Some of the students are very much receptive to the lessons and subjects, both math and English. And others, a few regularly dissatisfied students, refuse to participate. They do everything from crying, to throwing tantrums, to sitting silently and staring blankly until the break periods come around. This is both disruptive and severely inhibiting for the class progress, since we try and coax all of the students to participate. In some moments the pause that occurs while one of us tries to nudge one student to participate is enough to make another student lose interest. It isn’t that the students are always averse to learning, but that on some days they have dark moods, or are tired and decide not to participate, or particularly dislike the subject. When persuaded or engaged enough, each and every one of them are definitely willing to learn. But, with four inexperienced student-teachers to twelve to fifteen students, it can get hectic or slow in pace when three or four students don’t want to participate that day. While we want to cater to the student’s personal needs, time passes and the students fall further behind in comparison to the normative set in a South Korean school standard. Do we isolate the students who want to learn from those who are unwilling so that the few who do can make progress, at the expense of the learning of students who are less willing? Sometimes, we reach a point where the class just has to proceed even if some of the students sit with their heads down through the entire period.

Despite that, we have periods that all the students are engaged. We started small artistic exercises at the end of each week that are not necessarily academic but are just as important. The students are given blank paper and a prompt— perhaps ‘create an animal that doesn’t exist,’ or ‘describe your dream,’ or ‘imagine a universe of your own’— and given time to draw. At times, the students try and do the bare minimum. But once asked a few questions, it’s amazing to see how much imagination and human emotion they can bring into the things they create. Moreover, these exercises really seem to bring out the personal sides of the students, their interests, their dreams, and their story. They pull at us and call us over with ‘teacher, look at this’ or ‘teacher, look at what I drew!’ and describe to us every detail and the reasons why they made something in some way. Because of these moments, I wonder by the end of the week that maybe what we leave behind doesn’t have to be academic or pragmatic but something more. Maybe we could leave behind an understanding of self for the students with situations and personal histories that allowed little interest for their identities from both themselves and others around them.

After a week of teaching, we headed to Sokcho, a city northeast of Seoul that is known for its delicious sashimi and natural environment. We were warmly greeted by professors from Kyung Dong University, who showed us around the campus and presented lectures on the Sokcho region, which borders the eastern portion of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Despite the painful memories it may bring back, or the historical “scar” it may be, the unoccupied DMZ region is home a rich ecological system, and helps to promote organismal diversity. Furthermore, it preserves the beauty of nature in something that symbolizes division and hostility.

10510246_4241224045823_2052060213_n 10485070_4241224125825_1409318462_n

During our trip, we were able to visit the border to view North Korea from afar. The actual trip itself was a lengthy process, and we had to go clear multiple security checks to drive to the viewing point.

Looking out toward the DMZ along the beach

Looking out toward the DMZ along the beach

We also visited the DMZ Museum, which houses artifacts from the Korean War and provides a thorough history on the division between North and South Korea. Despite the modern, luxurious face that South Korea may present, there are still many underlying political issues to be solved. As each year passes and Korea continues to move forward with technology and society, it is difficult to remember that Korea is technically still at war.

An exhibit from the DMZ museum

An exhibit from the DMZ museum

Learning more about the history of division helps us to get a better idea of the situation at hand, and brings up lots of questions in regards to community service. The issues of reunification and resettlement are not ones that can be solved overnight, or even within a year. But, it is interesting to learn and experience this on multiple scales, from tutoring refugee children to visiting the border that represents a painful past and continues to divide a nation. The frustrations we may encounter at Kumkang School are not problems that are easily fixable. But, taking a step back and observing helps us to realize that we aren’t here to make drastic changes. Rather, our community service is made piece by piece in little ways, such as providing encouragement and confidence or inspiring a mind to reach further. We’re getting there, slowly but surely. In the spirit of the World Cup, here’s to a fantastic second half!

Go Team Korea!

Hiking at Seoraksan

Hiking at Seoraksan

10503669_4241224085824_3494699_o 10486352_4241224005822_1405687113_n


Progress. – Won-Ji Lee

We had gone into Tuesday with the same openness and optimism to teach the kids, but were a bit disappointed to see that all but the Chinese-speaking students had not come in until around 4:30. The rest of the students apparently have a new after-school program arranged by the Kumgang School and the public school to attend, that helps with their homework. Although the timing of the start of this new program is unfortunate, we have discussed it with the Kumgang teachers, Professor Kim, and Professor Kwon and are hoping to sort out what we can do to maximize the use of our skills. It would be a disappointment if any of the potential manpower of each of our DukeEngage members, goes wasted. With the Chinese-speaking students, however, every period seemed to flow regularly and with relative consistency. It is amazing to think of just how close we have gotten to these kids after just a short week. The sheltered body language and cold, disapproving looks some of us experienced on the first day with the kids, have now dissolved into an openness. We are at the point now where we know the students’ temperaments, natural inclinations, tics, and the best ways to reach them. With every funny face we make, every word taught, and every goading scold, these relationships are becoming more and more real by each day. After continued lessons in English, and even singing One Direction songs, we said our goodbyes for another day. But as we were leaving, we were followed by one of the younger students who came to us in tears. As we picked her up, she explained that she was crying because she missed her mother. We wiped her tears and assured that everything was going to be okay. Personally, it was a hard reminder of just how real these students’ situations and our relationships to them are.

Later that day, we traveled to Ewha University and separated into four different groups to continue our Korean studies with Ewha University students, courtesy of Professor Kim’s “connections.” Our teacher was another Professor Kim, who was a very friendly Ph. D student. We learned some basic grammar and held some basic conversations. In the next weeks, we will be meeting in a classroom at Ewha, learning more Korean, travelling to the Han River, and even trying to learn some different Korean dialects.

Thursday, half of our group went to teach the Chinese-speaking kids for the morning and early afternoon. As I was reading a Korean text along with one of the students about Christopher Columbus, I had one of those mind-boggling moments, pondering the situation I was in. Here I was, a Korean American, translating a Korean text into English, so it could be translated into Chinese, about European history of the colonization of America, to a North Korean student raised in China, now learning in a school in South Korea. It’s amazing how our unthinkably convoluted paths can align for a couple moments in our lives. Other than these kinds of cliché thoughts popping into my mind, the rest of the day consisted of several fights breaking out between the students, ending up with one bursting out the door with tears. After attempting to comfort her in Korean and wiping her tears, we sent her off and had lunch. Later in the afternoon, the Chinese-speaking students continued their curriculum with the other half of our group and we worked on math with a handful of sixth grade students, as all of the other students went to the hospital to receive vaccine shots. With the help of one of the regular math teachers at Kumgang, we were able to help the sixth grade students really focus and hone their skills in long multiplication, long division, and mixed fraction addition.

Later that night, at the group reflection session, we discussed our thoughts this week. We have made great progress with the Chinese-speaking students, as they are consistently at the school when we are, but we are hoping to get the same kind of consistency with the rest of the students next week!

IMG_0548 IMG_0547 IMG_0546 IMG_0544 IMG_0545

Week 3: Fist Bumps and a Surprise Twist – Anna Olekanma

At 9 o’clock Monday morning, Team A started off our second week of teaching at the Kumgang school. Our morning proceeded on as usual, as we went through Korean languages exercises with the Chinese-speaking students. However the afternoon greeted us with quite a surprise. 2:40 pm hit and Team B arrived on time, however none of the students had returned from school. 3:00 passed, then 3:30 pm and in that time only two students had returned from the local public school. At 4:00 pm, we figured that rather than waiting for them, it would be better to ask the principal about the students’ whereabouts. Turns out, that she was also surprised that the students had not yet returned from school and so she decided to give the school a call. After inquiring about the situation, the principal explained that the school had started a new program for the North Korean students and that they would be returning late from school throughout the week due to testing. Throughout the week, the students trickled in little by little starting from 3:00 pm, which caused our classes to be overstaffed, often having 2 or 3 teachers to one student, which definitely helped in terms of being able to cater exclusively to each student and controlling the class atmosphere. This week we didn’t end up strictly sticking to our intended lesson plans because of the lack of students, however we found that the lessons that we were able to do, were very successful and were really able to get the kids engaged. It could be that our lessons were particularly good this week or that the students are now starting to feel more comfortable with their new foreign teachers. This week there was a noticeable increase in participation by the students and even in our relationships with the students. As you walk down the main hallway of the school, it’s encouraging to see several animated conversations and inside jokes between students and teachers and the occasional creative handshakes and high fives. In just two weeks, we, as teachers, have learned how to get the kids to pay attention and how to balance serious class time with fun activities. It has also become easier to deal with the random surprises that seem to pop up each day and adjust our plans when necessary. We have been able to learn from the students and the school administration just as much as they are learning from us.

On Friday, for our weekly excursion, we were the granted the opportunity to go to Seoul National University (SNU). It is comprised of sixteen colleges and six professional schools and is considered to be the top university in South Korea and approximately the fourth highest university in all of Asia. The university maintains several undergraduate exchange programs with foreign universities including Harvard, Yale, Duke, Stanford, UPenn, MIT, and Peking University. As we walked through the campus, I was taken aback by the size and beauty of the campus. The landscape was absolutely breathtaking and includes the Gwanaksan mountain as a lovely backdrop, with several ponds and innovative architecture. For the first couple of hours of our trip, we were hosted by the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University (IPUS). The Institute primarily focuses on peace studies around the world and conducts many research projects that will ultimately provide insight into unification issues on the Korean Peninsula. According to SNU, IPUS concentrates on three dimensions: peace through inter-Korean reconciliation, peace through the promotion of cultural and human rights, and peace through ecological civilization. We were able to listen to lectures by three professors that work with IPUS. The first lecture by Professor Philo Kim, a Humanities professor at SNU, talked about Inter-Korean relations. That was followed by Professor Young Hoon Song, a Senior Researcher at IPUS, who discussed the lives of refugees, including their travel routes from North Korea, assimilation into South Korean societies and the status of North Korean refugees in other countries outside of the Korean Peninsula. The last lecture was by Professor Byung-Yeon Kim, Deputy Director and Professor of Economics at SNU (and also the father of one of our classmates at Duke!), who looked at the prospect of unification from an economic viewpoint. We found that all of the lectures provided facts and ideas from a fresh neutral viewpoint, in contrast to the more South Korea-centric lectures that we heard at the Ministry of Unification Education. At the end of the lectures we were able to visit the famous Kyujanggak Archives, which was the royal library of the Joseon Dynasty starting from 1776. Inside were several old documents written by scholars of the Joseon period, on topics ranging from astrology and maps to tools and language studies. We ended the day with a quick trip to Gangnam, a well-known part of Seoul (thanks to the song Gangnam Style by Psy) where we picked up some refreshing bubble teas.

IMG_0509 IMG_0549 IMG_0508 IMG_0507 IMG_0552 IMG_0553

The Adventure at Kumgang Begins – Drew Korschun and Jina Yun

We said goodbye to our first few days of freedom that we had in simply exploring our new home for the summer, and we also said goodbye to our fascinating journey to Seoul’s Ministry of Unification and the DMZ. It was our first week at Kumgang School (금강 학교) our purpose for traveling to Seoul in the first place. We would no longer be explorers, but residents. No longer passive learners, but active participants.

The only taste of the school we had gotten was a very brief visit to the school we had made the day before (we’re talking ten minutes), where we got to simply look at the campus, greet the principal, and see a group of smiling kids standing in the large room they had to do activities in.

On the first morning, we took the subway early just for precaution, going from Hongdae Station across the Han River to Shindorim Station, transferring to another line and finally ending up at Gaebong Station. By this time we were already accustomed to the subway, so we didn’t end up making fools of ourselves by falling or swaying due to the speed. Dressed up in business casual style, we rode clustered together, anticipating how our first day plans would turn out.

When we arrived at the school, we met one of the teachers at the school, Ms. Ko (Ko seonsaengnim) for the first forty-minute period of the day in order to get better acquainted with the school’s operation before we met the students and in order to ask some of the pressing questions we had. How were we to address them? Were we to use chondetmal (formal language) or panmal (informal language)? What exactly was she and the other people who run the school exactly expecting of us during this seven-week engagement? Ms. Ko let us know that we could speak to the kids informally and address them by their given names. She also said that first things first, we should help the kids with the homework they brought from their regular South Korean public schools, and after that, focus quite a bit on English, Math, and when possible Korean (especially for the kids who know more Chinese than Korean). We took all of this in, and a handful of the group got ready to work with the kids who stay at the school in the morning.

There were only two students at Kumgang in the morning, though there were usually four who stayed back at the school so that they could catch up in learning Korean so that they could soon join regular Korean public schools. As we were told earlier in the year, most of these North Korean refugees have come to South Korea by route of China, so many of them have spent the majority of their lives in China, speaking Chinese the most fluently and sometimes even feeling nationally Chinese rather than Korean. Since Michelle speaks Chinese fluently and I can get by in conversational Chinese, we both went into the reading room where two Chinese-speaking boys, one eleven years old and the other, fourteen, were sitting expectantly. Jina also accompanied us, and later as did most of the other DESKalators (a self-chosen denomyn for those in Duke Engage South Korea). We mainly worked on Korean passages with the boys, and so we were equally dependent on the Korean-speaking DESKalators for understanding the material and on the Chinese speakers for conveying the information to them so they’d understand. It was not easy material for the students, and it wasn’t easy material to teach either. I hope that we were an encouraging force for them though, able to make them excited about learning new things (or even the same things but with a different language-paradigm). Since these students are now residents of South Korea, and by some strange twist of fate, China can no longer be their country and they must adopt this new one and become familiar with its ways. I’m never against encouraging foreign languages, but it does seem quite a pity that foreign language learning for countless refugees and migrants around the world has to come in the context of being thrown into the unfamiliar and having to unlearn what they’ve already spent their lives learning and making progress in. I hope that these students all learn to love the Korean language for its beauty, complex and simple, as well as the peninsula that language is spoken in, and I will do by best to speak to them in Korean when possible. But of course, it is priceless to see little eyes widen in wonder and joy when they learn that some of their new teachers can converse with them in their heart language.

After working in a very individual-focused manner until around 2:30, the rest of the kids at Kumgang came back from their public schools, and for the rest of the day, it was, to be quite frank, chaotic. The students, I’m sure, were wary of us as outsiders coming in to volunteer for the summer (as many have already experienced South Korean and American students coming in to volunteer before), but they were also very excited to meet us, and we DESKalators were more than excited to meet all of them. In that first period, we did an ice breaker game in the large upstairs room, which was certainly a way for the kids to channel their abundant energy. In the game, everyone made a circle and someone had to say “I love [something],” and if other people in the circle love that something, they had to switch places, and whoever didn’t have a pair of shoes to stand in front of had to go next and say something they love.

I think the energy levels were certainly a surprise for most of us. Some kids would slam the door and say “Merong” (a kind of “nanny nanny boo boo”), run and yell, and on the other hand, some would choose not to participate in activities. There were also a lot of violent tendencies that we noted: hair-pulling, casual pretending to choke each other, and sometimes slapping. We wonder how much of their past trauma in the family realm and in the realm of international migration has affection their lives today – their mood, outlook, levels of trust with certain people, and their need for attention. Kumgang is essentially a boarding school, and while majority of the kids seemingly get to see their parents on the weekend, some of the kids rarely have the opportunity to see their parents (some only get to see them two days out of the year). Learning facts like this is tough, but it also puts things into perspective when it comes to dealing with behavioral issues and giving them the attention that they need and deserve. Throughout the days, we also wondered what exactly was the purpose of our volunteering at the school. Is learning material like English and Math really the big take-away for these kids this summer? It would definitely be great if the students were able to have a portfolio or a project to explore their identities and their dreams, and I’m sure that would be a great thing, created by the students themselves, to leave behind But maybe the attention we give them during the school week will be equally important.

Some things about us as the teachers, though, inevitably threw up some barriers. First and foremost, language greatly affected our interactions with the kids. Only two of us speak Chinese, and most of us speak Korean on a very wide spectrum of ability. But honestly, a lot of the time, speaking feels like bumbling around, especially for me. I’m trying my best to communicate, but sometimes the language ability barrier makes me sound awkward and unconfident – something I will have to improve on through the weeks, and which I am sure will naturally get better by just interacting with the students every day.

Secondly, for many students, people of different races was a huge novelty. For example, when Anna walked into one classroom, one boy asked her if she had eaten too much chocolate, and if that was why her skin looked different. A lot of the students are also very eager to feel my arm hair and ask if my legs look the same (since white people tend to have more body hair…). All of the students are really sweet and are very accepting of us, however, despite some differences. I think that it’s an exciting experience for them, but it’s equally exciting for us teachers to learn from all of the kids, who vary a lot in personality, age, language, interests, and more.

A difficulty we encountered on this first day was that it seemed that none of the kids had any homework that they had brought from their public Korean schools. As well, many of the kids different greatly in level, and we found out that age does not necessarily correspond with grade level. We would have to come up with ways to engage everybody’s interest and learning while also catering to different levels. A balancing act between group learning and one-on-one help would be necessary.

Overall, the second day went much more smoothly than the first. We were starting to remember a majority of the students’ names, and we were much more confident in what we were to expect from the school day. We had prepared concrete lessons and worksheets for the students, and we found that doling out very specific assignments was a great way to keep the students engaged, diligent, and free from rowdiness. However, we also started to learn that balancing the more fun subjects with the harder, not as dynamic ones was important for keeping the students engaged and channeling their energy when it started to show up more.

We also learned that the students are in love with certain K-pop groups (*cough* EXO *cough*) as well as American animation (*cough* Frozen *cough*), so engaging them in their own interests, we found, was crucial. We had a great time teaching some of the English lyrics to “Let it Go” from Frozen, and letting them partake in creative assignments such as one in which they were able to create and draw their very own animal and tell the class about where it lives, what it eats, and why they wanted to create it. However, the week at Kumgang teaching and getting to know these students has definitely shown the flaws of the glitzy world of Hallyu (the Korean pop culture wave) in not being representative with the reality of Korea’s people of diverse backgrounds. While fun to engage in music and culture, it is always a good idea to question what kind of image of Korea it props up and what type of Korean person it promotes (in terms of beauty, wealth, ethnicity, language, and so on). I am beyond excited to keep on moving throughout the weeks here in Seoul, on the streets and in the school. I know that there are great plans ahead of us, even if they are foggy at the moment, and we DESKalators will do our best to carpe the diem and live haru-haru (day by day).

Similar to Tuesday, we only taught in the afternoon on Wednesday. We used the same teaching strategies from the day before and tried to plan a lesson or an activity for each period while separating into two smaller classes. Even though the kids were willing to participate and pay attention on Tuesday, they were oddly in a bad mood on Wednesday. It seemed as though that if one of them was in a bad mood, it brought down the mood of all the other kids in the class. This really heightened their slightly violent behavior and most of them had a harder time focusing and staying motivated to learn. A lot of the kids tried to either leave or sleep instead of participating in class. We were a bit confused and unsure about the source of this mood swing, but we suspect that a lot of this is because they are not allowed to leave the school during most of the day. Furthermore, we made the grand mistake of having the two classes play at different times. When one class was playing, the other class that was having a lesson was chaotic because the kids were complaining that they did not get to play as well. We definitely learned it the hard way that playtime should be at the same time for both classes.

We faced another obstacle later in the day when the principal brought in two new students who cannot speak a word of Korean. We were quite unprepared because we were never told about these new students, but we handled the situation with grace by separating one of the classes into two smaller classes and having one class that focused on learning Korean for these Chinese-speaking students. We quickly got a sense of their skill levels and made worksheets for them on the spot for them to start learning with the other students.
It was pretty clear during the past couple days that communication with the principal was lacking and inefficient. In order to solve this problem, a couple of us went to speak to her about our concerns regarding this issue. Even though we expected some positive responses, we were disappointed by her reaction. It was clear that they had numerous administrative difficulties, confusion about details, lack of knowledge about the kids. But despite this incident, we continued to remain professional and positive towards our relation with them, because in the end, we are here for the kids.

Besides a couple difficulties throughout the day, it was definitely clear that we were all improving in controlling the kids in the class, teaching the classes, and handling unexpected situations. The kids also seemed to be growing fonder of all of us. There was definitely a gap between the kids and us on the first day of teaching, but the kids were now hanging on our arms, playing with our hair, and giving us drawings of us. Even though it was only our third day with the kids, it was amazing how much we were able to reach out to them.

For Thursday, our last teaching day of the week, Professor Kim joined us! It was initially very confusing because we thought that we would only be teaching the Chinese-speaking kids in the morning and the regular class in the afternoon, we found out that all the kids were going to be in the school all day. We split up the morning into two classes where a group of us taught the Chinese-speaking kids Korean and the other kids played together and worked on the computer. For the Chinese-speaking kids, we focused on more one-on-one time for personal attention and help, which we found to be very valuable. The kids not only were more open to learning, but also were able to focus better. In the afternoon, we had regular lessons like we did before. The kids seemed to be a lot better about paying attention, maybe because they were able to release a lot of their energy by playing in the morning. We tried to teach them English by singing “Let It Go” from Frozen. The class was quite successful! The kids really loved it and were mostly willing to participate. Through this class, the kids opened up more even more to us and some were even sad that we were not going to be coming on Friday.

We started our Friday with a North Korean food workshop. We learned how to make potato dumplings (감자 만두) and tofu rice (두부밥). Potato dumplings are famous in 함경도, a region in North Korea while tofu rice is a traditional food, in some ways North Korean version of South Korea’s 떡볶이. We had the chance to learn about the foods, learn how to make them, and even make it ourselves! After our food workshop, we headed to 인사동where we walked around and explored the streets. Next, we went to 남산타워 by taking a cable car to the top of the mountain. We were able to see the locks that people put on the fences and saw beautiful night lights once the sun set. It was a busy and a tiring day, but a valuable experience filled with exciting events where we were able to learn more about the Korean culture.

Welcome to Seoul! – Usman Mahmood and Michelle Dang

After a long series of connecting flights and inconvenient layovers at airports across the globe, our crew finally arrived at Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea. Our team consists of eight students and two faculty directors, Professors Aimee Kwon and Eunyoung Kim. After landing in Seoul, the group, so relieved and excited to get things going, eased through customs, grabbed our luggage, and we were off to our guesthouse in Hongdae, an area of Seoul named after Hongik University. Hongdae is known for its art, music, and entertainment scene, a culture very fitting for us college students! Upon arriving to our guesthouse, our faculty directors kindly gave us a full day of rest before we would head to the Institution for Unification Education for our four-day seminar on the issue of Korean Unification, which serves as the foundation for this particular Duke Engage program. We used the free day to explore the vibrant streets of Hongdae, stopping by parks, live music performances, coffee shops, and restaurants. By the end of the day, we were worn out and ready to rest up for our excursion at the IUE.

The IUE campus was about an hour away from Hongdae via subway and then bus, and situated on the very mountainous outer edge of Seoul adjacent to the Bukhansan Mountain National Park. Following our arrival at the Ministry of Unification, we left for a tour of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) along the border between North and South Korea. The DMZ was created in 1953, at the end of the Korean War as a part of the Korean Armistice Agreement between North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, and the United Nations Command forces. This buffer zone sits along the 38th parallel, dividing Korea in half, and is the most heavily militarized border in the world. Our first stop at the DMZ was the Unification Village, a civil control zone where we were able to gain insight into the products of a farming village, particularly soybean. From there we moved to Dorasan Station, the northernmost railroad station in South Korea. The station is just 700m from the southern boundary line of the DMZ, and 205km to Pyeongyang, the capital city of North Korea. Dorasan station serves as a representation of Korea’s division and also its unification. Once traffic is possible between the two Koreas, both goods and people from countries like China and Russia will be transported and will go through the customs and entry center at Dorasan station. Following our stint at Dorasan station, we were able to walk through the 3rd infiltration tunnel. Designed for a surprise invasion into South Korea by North Korean forces, the underground tunnel, lined in bedrock, was discovered in October 1978. The tunnel is 1.6 km long, 1.95 m high, and 2 m wide, and capable of allowing the passage of 30,000 North Korean soldiers! Our last stop at the DMZ, and the most surreal for me, was the Joint Security Area and Panmunjom village. The JSA lies in the DMZ, and is the only section where North and South Korean soldiers are standing face to face. JSA is now used for diplomatic negotiations between the two Koreas. The emotions flowing through my body while standing on the South Korean side of JSA looking into North Korea were unreal as I was actually standing in a place that I had seen so many times on television in the news. I could almost feel the tension between the two sides as the South Korean soldiers were staring down one North Korean soldier, who would occasionally pull out his binoculars to check out the visitors. On our long bus ride back to the IUE I reflected on this experience at the DMZ, as the separation of a people of the same culture was so captivating and the origin of my interest in the program. Our group became further informed on the history of the division of Korea, and there was no better location for us to learn about this issue than the demilitarized zone.

On our third day at the Ministry of Unification, we continued to participate in a series of lectures pertaining to Korean unification. The first lecture was focused on the current unification policy of the Park Geun-Hye government, presented by Duk-haeng Lee, a senior policy cooperation officer of the Ministry of Unification. After the previous day’s lectures, which gave a background to the issue of unification, this was the first time we engaged with concrete ideas as to how unification could be brought forth. Our lecturer stressed that the government must have two different policies prepared according to the circumstances and timeline of unification. One policy should take into account that sudden changes may occur in the next few years, which would accelerate the unification process. Especially in the past few years, there have been signification changes in leadership within East Asia – Kim Jong Un inherited the position of power after his father Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011, becoming the new leader of North Korea, Park Geun-Hye was elected as the president of South Korea in 2013 and Xi Jinping became the president of China in 2012. Changes in government policy could significantly affect the process of unification, and the South Korean government must be prepared for such circumstances. On the other hand, even if there is no catalyst for unification in the new few years, the government should still have a policy in place that encourages unification in the next 15-20 years. This second policy should stress that unification may be costly, but that any costs incurred should be seen as an investment that brings about benefits that will eventually cover any losses experienced at the beginning. Most importantly, any unification policy should be focused on achieving happiness for all Korean people.

The second lecturer of the day was Professor Sandip Mishra, a visiting professor from the University of Delhi, who offered an alternative point of view by looking at the Korean unification issue from an international perspective. He noted that there were three ‘levels’ of players involved in the unification process. The core players are North Korea and South Korea – there is no doubt that unification must be instigated within Korean peninsula. The second level consists of key players like Russia, China, USA and Japan, nations who have strong political and economical ties with North Korea and South Korea. The third level contains all other countries that may have weaker ties with the two core players, but can also take part in the unification process. This last level of players is often forgotten or dismissed as unnecessary – however, Professor Mishra pointed out that ignoring this ‘third level’ would be to forego the global nature of the Korean unification issue. It is also possible to use indirect connections to augment communication between the key players; for example, Pakistan has close connections with both China and North Korea, and South Korea could reach out to North Korea with Pakistan as an intermediary. In other words, seemingly uninvolved nations could play a role in bridging the gap between the two sides of the Korean peninsula. Professor Mishra also mentioned that the issue of unification has gradually become more prominent in India in the past few years because of the Hallyu wave – as more people all over the world become interested and invested in the Korean peninsula, the process of unification may need to evolve into an international matter.

Our third and last lecture of the day was on the topic of life in North Korea, presented by North Korean professor Jeong Eun-chan. Our lecturer gave us many examples of shops in Pyongyang, and how items were priced – for example, coffee would cost the equivalent of an average worker’s monthly salary in North Korea. Needless to say, these are items that can only be afforded by high-ranking officials. Meat is also very expensive and beef is especially rare because cows are considered laborers, not a source of meat. In fact, killing a cow is a crime punishable by death. She also talked about education and student life in North Korea. Education in North Korea is provided for every student until high school; after high school graduation, students can choose to get a job or enter university. School dress code is extremely strict and any student who does not dress appropriately would be asked to leave the classroom – apparently, on the day our whole group would have been dismissed if we were North Korean students because of the way we dressed! Professor Jeong compared university to military training – in fact, when she was in university she was an expert in artillery and even learnt how to throw a grenade. In terms of the political climate in North Korea, the population has significantly less deference for their leader compared to the past – Kim Il Sung is still considered a godly figure, but Kim Jong Il was simply considered a leader and Kim Jong Un is even less revered. This decline in popularity could mean that the North Korean people are beginning to lose faith in the regime, especially as outside culture is much more accessible now in North Korea due to technological advance. When asked how much it costs to defect, our lecturer responded that crossing into China costs 10,000USD, and getting to South Korea would cost another 10,000USD.

To conclude our trip to the Ministry of Unification, we had the opportunity to visit the Hanawon Resettlement Center and the nearby Hangyeore School. The Hanawon Resettlement Center is the bigger of the two resettlement centers North Korean refugees go through when they first arrive in South Korea. Out of all the refugees in South Korea, 70% are female and most are between the ages of 20 and 40. At the Hanawon Resettlement Center, about an hour away from Seoul, refugees partake in a three month long resettlement program focusing on improving health conditions, learning about South Korean culture and gaining practical skills that could help them get a job. Female refugees can take part in twelve training courses that teach skills like sewing, cooking and baking. Male refugees can choose from three courses that train them to work with heavy machinery. Furthermore, there are field trips to markets or clothing stores so that the North Korean refugees can become accustomed to purchasing items in South Korean stores. After the program, the refugees can participate in further programs at smaller centers scattered around the country. We were given a tour of the facilities, which consisted of several teaching buildings with a variety of classrooms, health clinics and dormitories. There was also a school on the premises for young North Korean refugee children.

Our last stop was at Hangyeore School, a middle and high school for North Korean refugee students. Just last year, two Hangyeore students visited Duke and hosted a panel to discuss life in North Korea. The school itself is very big and consists of two buildings connected in the middle, symbolizing bridging the gap between the two Koreas. This school is considered a ‘model school’ and has a wide range of facilities, including a classroom for learning how to be a barista. In fact, one of our student guides had won second at a national barista competition. We were able to meet several students and asked them questions about life at the school and the difficulties adjusting to South Korean culture, while they asked us about our experiences as Duke students. Afterwards, we toured the school grounds, visited two dormitory rooms and got to watch a student performance in the assembly hall. Interestingly, one room was set aside as a museum of sorts with textbooks, movies and a set of school uniform from North Korea. Going to Hangyeore and seeing the enthusiasm of the students made us even more excited to begin our work at Kumkang School!

The first week of our stay was definitely a great experience, both informative and exciting. Being able to personally visit the DMZ while learning about the history of the Korean division was a surreal opportunity that the whole group will remember, and will use as the foundation for the rest of our time in South Korea.

Check out some photos from our first week in Seoul!

Traditional Korean Village House

Traditional Korean Village House

Street in Hongdae

Street in Hongdae

IMG_0291 IMG_0294

Posing with a South Korean soldier at JSA

Posing with a South Korean soldier at JSA

JSA: South and North Korean soldiers in a staring face-to-face

JSA: South and North Korean soldiers in a staring face-to-face


Campus of the IUE

Campus of the IUE

Seminar at the IUE

Seminar at the IUE


Entrance to the Tracks at Dorasan Station

Entrance to the Tracks at Dorasan Station


Hangyeore School

Hangyeore School

IMG_0353 IMG_0325 IMG_0354IMG_0327 IMG_0345