We Laughed, Then We Cried – Yehdahm Kweon and Rebecca Kim

Our last few days in Korea have been bittersweet. There have been many goodbyes, hugs, and well wishes. It is hard to believe that two full months have gone by. Looking back, we have come a very long way and made lots of progress. Our last day at KumKang was on Thursday. We had a slideshow of the pictures that were taken over the past two months, and had a small pizza party with the students. It is amazing how close we have gotten with the kids; we were even able to see some students blossom from shy to energetic and excited. There was lots of energy at KumKang School that day. Many of the students do not have much stability or consistency in their day to day lives. Even in the short time that we have been there, we have seen multiple forms of volunteers come in and out of the school. Although a relatively short volunteer program will not solve the entire issue of the reunification of the Korean Peninsula, it is one small step in understanding the situation in depth, and spreading awareness about it. In the case of Kum Kang School, some volunteers place a label on the students as “North Korean Refugee Children” which ultimately sounds like a charity case. However, a big lesson that we all learned during our time here is that these children are just like any other kids. They throw tantrums, play games, and can be better actors than professional athletes.

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And though we’ve said our goodbyes, it certainly doesn’t mean it is the end. What we established in the two months of learning and working with these students is the very first of hopefully many meetings between Duke students and KumKang School. Perhaps the program will develop to have a structure penpal system so that the students and the student-teachers can keep in touch. And maybe the difficulties faced and mistakes made in this first trial will be fixed in joint effort in coming years. We leave with high hopes for the following summer and the incredible experience of learning from the students as much as they learned from us.

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Gaining New Insights: Visit to the United States Embassy – Usman Mahmood

When North Korea is mentioned in the United States, there is usually a certain stigma surrounded the subject of this country regardless of the context it is mentioned in. The country is constantly negatively perceived as the “bad guy” due to the closed-off dictatorship headed by Kim Jong Un and its provocative actions concerning nuclear weapons. Thus, the media in the United States and many other countries around the world spend a large amount of time on its discontent with North Korean actions rather than the prospect of unification with South Korea, a people of the same history and culture who have been split for more than 63 years.

 

Some of the group out in front of the American Embassy

Some of the group out in front of the American Embassy

Statue of King Sejong near the embassy. The most respected king of the Joseon dynasty and the creator of Korea's alphabet.

Statue of King Sejong near the embassy. The most respected king of the Joseon dynasty and the creator of Korea’s alphabet.

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Throughout our stay here in Seoul, we have had the privilege of hearing different perspectives on the prospect of unification. At the Institution for Unification Education during the first week of our trip, we were able to gain insight into the steps that South Korea is taking toward reunification, South Korea’s current and past relationship with North Korea since the divide, and the role of international players, specifically India and Pakistan on the reunification process. A few weeks later, we attended another series of lecture that provided a different look on unification such as in-depth analysis of the economic implications of unification. However, up until our trip to the United States Embassy we had not gained a detailed American perspective on unification or the relationship between North and South Korea, which is relevant to our group as students who live in the U.S.. After going through a series of security measures at the embassy located in Gwanghwamun, we were fortunate to have a talk with Daniel Tikvart, an specialist in North Korean relations who prior to working at the embassy served as North Korea Unit Chief in the Office of Korean Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Throughout the talk with Mr. Tikvart, we gained insight into the United States’ role in South Korea, specifically their military agreements and compromises to support South Korea against North Korea in addition to the role America has played in supporting the North Korean refugees who need to be integrated into South Korean society. Another major point of the lecture was the United States’ role in unification as a country that would be integral to the process along with Japan, China, and Russia. Due to the immediate costs that unification would generate, foreign powers such as the United States will need to play some kind of role without excessive interference, as the issue should be resolved under the terms of the two Koreas.

 

Statue of Admiral Yi Sunshin, in Gwanghwamun Square

Statue of Admiral Yi Sunshin, in Gwanghwamun Square

Changing of guard ceremony at Gwanghwamun Palace

Changing of guard ceremony at Gwanghwamun Palace

As a whole, the lecture was captivating as it provided our group with a new perspective, one that is often over-shadowed in the United States by the constant negative press concerning the North Korean government. Despite the occasional American bias, which was anticipated with regards to the North Korean government and a unified Korea under a liberal democracy, the lecture gave an objective explanation on America’s role in the relationship between North and South Korea.

Lunch at a Chinese restaurant after the embassy

Lunch at a Chinese restaurant after the embassy

 

 

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.

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