2006 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Junior third place

How the situation in North Korea affects the Korean identity in America
James Paik

North Korea is one of the last communist nations in the world, and naturally, the North Korean people suffer for it. Their dictator, Kim Jung Il, was ranked second in Parade Magazine’s “Worst Dictator 2006.” The land is struck by poverty and famine, and when foreign countries try to help, Kim Jung Il diverts the funds to building up his military forces and buying and selling nuclear weapons. But how does this affect Koreans thousands of miles away from the chaos, in America?

If I recall, I used to be called a communist in elementary school, because people wanted to manipulate the fact that I was related to North Koreans. Back then I suffered from what I thought was low self-esteem, but really, I was just weak. Most of the time, I was just like any other kid, but sometimes, I was mistaken for a North Korean person, and people would ask, “So, are you a good Korean or bad Korean?” Personally, I found that offensive, because the people living in North Korea aren’t bad, they’re unfortunate. The only real bad person is Kim Jung Il for treating the people like this. So I thought I would ask some people about how Korean identity is recognized in America, and I got quite a few answers.

First, some people believed that the corruption of North Korea results in stereotypical prejudice against Koreans dwelling in America. They said that we Korean Americans are thought of as bad because of our background. Two of the people I interviewed said that all of North and South Korea is bad, perhaps thinking that the horrible circumstances facing North Koreans also apply to South Korea. A teacher at my school said that these days, most Korean Americans have not been able to escape being affected by the North Koreans.

Not everyone I interviewed could provide me with an opinion. A substantial number of people were unfamiliar with the current events in North and South Korea. In fact, 42 % of the 76 people I interviewed said that they didn’t know anything about this topic, or said that they didn’t read about it in the newspapers or watch the news. In retrospect, this is understandable because students are often busy with school and adults are occupied with work.

Other, more informed members of my school community contributed additional insight. One teacher stated that people who know the Korean community in the United States know that the Koreans here are not responsible for the behavior of the leader of North Korea and for the condition and poverty of the people who currently live in North Korea. At my school, a paraprofessional commented on the effect of the media, stating that often people’s views and opinions are skewed by the messages of the news and journalists: “I feel people spread false assumptions about North Korean people.” He meant that the media broadcasts false messages about the general race of Koreans, so that ridiculous claims are made about Koreans in America.

Another teacher commented that he thought that social statements directed at Koreans weren’t made favorably, while a staff member thought that since Americans have more contact with South Koreans than the North Koreans, they might not mistreat South Koreans. I also interviewed a very nice substitute teacher who stated that, “North Korea is under rule by a cruel person, and all you can do is either go with his belief and become a victim, or become a martyr and take part in a public execution.” What I realized from that was if others could know what she knew, then they wouldn’t look down on Korean Americans, because they would recognize that North Koreans have no choice. The last teacher I interviewed told me that in her opinion, people needed to be educated on both sides of the issue to make a sound decision. She believed that all people have the right to a fair and honorable government and society, no matter what.

One of my friends said that when a Korean is seen on the streets, a person’s first impulse is to think of them as a North Korean, because of the situations there. In his personal opinion, however, he thought that North and South Koreans were all equal, no matter what political leader they had. Another person stated that “Korean Americans shouldn’t be discriminated against just because North Korea has an idiot for a leader.” Surprisingly, when asked to provide their views about how Koreans are perceived in America, 19% of the people I interviewed only said that Korean Americans are discriminated against, without stated anything more. This simple nature of this answer shows how much the situation in North Korea is affecting Korean American identity. As a possible remedy, one student stated, “The North Korean government should rethink its ways and work to the benefit of the people.”

Lastly, I had to interview some actual Koreans to get their point of view on what it was like being a Korean in America. A friend of mine commented that some people think that all South Koreans are bad and cannot be trusted. So obviously, she had been discriminated against or misunderstood before. Two other Koreans said that they had been disrespected before because of their background, and it hurt them. Another Korean gave me an answer from his heart: “I think that the situation in North Korea affects Korean Americans for the worse because the uninformed people sometimes say ‘You communist!’ or something hurtful, but if this situation in North Korea turns to the worst case scenario, it will be much worse.” I could tell that he had been misunderstood before, just like me and the other 3 Koreans I interviewed, and it meant a lot to me for him to tell me that.

In conclusion, the public seems to have a variety of views on the way Korean Americans are treated in America today based on the North Korean situation, but one thought consistently emerged: Everyone thought that the poverty, famine, and weapons in North Korea made Korean Americans much worse off. In my opinion, Korean Americans are mistreated sometimes not because of ignorance, but because some people are not as well informed about the situation in North Korea. We should help North Korea, not only for their own cause, but to mend the division between two people (North and South Koreans), for Korean American dignity, and for the welfare and safety of our North Korean brethren.