Sunday, January 8, 2012

Letter From Ashley

It's been quite some time since I've written about my youngest daughter,
Ashley, who is living in South Korea. Ashley traveled there in August to teach
English at an all girl elementary school.

If you remember a few weeks ago, the leader for North Korea, Kim Jong II, died.
I was very worried about what could happen. So far, things have been quiet and
we are keeping a close eye on world news...

I wanted to share some pictures and an email we received from Ashley today.
Even if you aren't up on your current event, I think you will find this letter interesting and
grateful that we live in a democratic country.

I've started teaching private lessons afterschool to people I've met through my coteacher or at my gym. Interestingly enough, one of my student's is a Korean diplomat's 6 year-old son. That family just found out a few weeks ago that they are moving to Tokyo in February for their next job assignment so it is just a 3-month tutoring gig. Another student is a friend from my gym that is moving to London in August to get her 3rd Master's degree at the Royal Academy of Music so she drives me around Seoul and takes me to all the coolest cafes and bakeries - we have a lot of fun together!!

Speaking of Japan, I'm going back next month for my birthday! I will stay at friends' houses for the entire trip - 4 nights in Tokyo and 3 nights in Sapporo. I'm excited to reconnect with all my Japanese friends before they graduate in April and disperse throughout the country! Flights home were too expensive considering South Dakota's infamous winters...

(Korean cat cafe - cats roaming freely in the store - gross! And I love cats!)
But the reason I really wanted to write these email was to talk to you about my trip to the DMZ (demilitarized zone)! After reading some books about North Korea, it was definitely bizarre to see some of the stuff in person. We took a bus from Seoul for about an hour and stopped at a reunification observatory tower. From there we could see North Korea and the river that defectors swim across - it was frozen so I guess no one can escape for a few months. We got to sit in a staged North Korean classroom with pictures of Kim il sung and Kim Jong il.
(notice the picture in the classroom of the leader and his son)

Our tour also included a Q&A with a North Korean defector who is currently living in South Korea. Her story was really interesting. She worked for the North Korean government for about 7 years because it's the only way to have a good life in Korea (ex: everyone else is starving). After she finished her service she was allowed to go to a North Korean university. Somehow when she was in university she was watching a South Korean drama tv show and realized that all the information the North Korean government was feeding her was a lie. During her entire time working for the N.K. government she believed and followed everything she was told. She escaped North Korea by swimming the Yalu River to the Chinese border. Once she was in China she hired a broker for around $5,000 to transfer her to another country. Then Chinese authorities found out about her and 11 other defector' existences and put them on a ship to be sent back to North Korea. All of the defectors had poison in their coat pockets and drank poison because they thought dying now was better than being brutally killed for being traitors to North Korea. Somehow (this was translated roughly into English so we couldn't entirely connect the dots) an NGO got involved and pumped all of the poison out of them and brought them to the Phillippines to recover and she eventually migrated to South Korea. Today South Korea has about 22,000 North Korean defectors. Our tour's defector has only lived in South Korea for 6 years and everyday is a challenge and an opportunity.

Our English tour guide also told us lots of interesting stories while we were traveling en route on the bus about North and South Korean families being separated after the war. In the past, North Korea cooperated with South Korea in allowing some families to be reunited for an entire day near the DMZ but since the millenium North Korea has almost always refused to participate. One story we were told was about a husband, wife, and daughter. The wife and daughter went to South Korea during the war and the husband got stuck in the North. The daughter grew up alone with her mom in South Korea and the wife never remarried in hopes for reunification someday. Meanwhile, the husband got a job with the North Korean military and remarried with another 3 kids. This family had a one day reunion after 40 years of being separated. Our tour guide told us the husband's first wife was in complete shock that her husband was remarried with kids and didn't say a single word for a majority of the day they were together, except for in the beginning. Can you imagine? After this we watched a documentary about what life in North Korea entails. The images were really good - much clearer than anything I had seen before so military intelligence must have released this information to the museum. Millions of people are starving in North Korea. If you die, you don't get buried. You just go on a pile where animals can come eat you later. One defector interviewed on the film said it was common to see a dog walking around with a limb in it's mouth. Households get 1 hour of electricity a day. And yet the communist regime spends millions of dollars on luxurious things for its "Dear Leader." Kim Jong il had 500 luxury cars, and the annual mourning celebration for the death of Kim il sung costs 30 million dollars. North Korea even openly grows opium that it sells to China for about 30 to 40 million dollars each year. North Korean children are sold as slaves to Chinese people who sometimes still don't even feed them.. Hundreds of North Koreans die of starvation every day. Is there even a solution to the North Korean problem? If we give food, who says that the government won't keep it for themselves? If we give money, we are just asking for trouble and contributing to the problem.
(view of N Korean town across the river)

The next main point on our tour was Camp Bonifas - the nearest U.S./Korean military base near the border. Camp Bonfias soldiers are 93% Korean and 7% American. The base is run by the United Nations Joint Security Area. Only the best of the best Korean soliders are here. They must be fluent in a foreign language, all immediate and distant relatives of the potential soldier must have their background checked, they have to pass tough physical examinations, and they must fit certain physical descriptions. Being a JSA solider is something to be proud of for the rest of one's life. Camp Bonfias was named after an American military captain named Bonfas who was brutally murdered by North Korean soliders during was is now called the "Axe Murder Incident." The American and South Korean militaries realized that one of the checkpoints to the North Korean border was blocked by a tree so they sent a letter to North Korea saying on this day and at this time they were going to trim the tree. When the day came and American soldiers were cutting the tree, North Korean soliders came and watched for about 15 minutes before they grabbed the axes from the American soldiers (Camp Bonifas and one other) and brutally massacred them from their back side with the axe. We drove by where the tree one was and saw the memorial. Truly eye-watering to see.
The last main part of our tour was to the J.S.A. building where I actually got to see a North Korean soldier! This was the point that after having read books and followed news articles that showed Hilary Clinton visiting here and the standoffs between the two countries, I got goosebumps and wanted to leave right away after having taken a picture. In the building, they locked the North Korean door so they cannot come in and we got to stand on officially North Korean negotiation territory for about a minute and a half.

(Ashley standing near a JSA soldier in front of the North Korean door of the U.N. negotiating room.)
One thing I did take away from this experience was how proud I am of American soliders in Korea. They don't have a good reputation here on the streets of Seoul - bars have signs saying NO AMERICAN SOLDIERS ALLOWED - NO G.I.s - NO MILITARY I.D.s because soldiers in the past have gotten too drunk and violent. One American soldier was convicted about two months ago for breaking into a hotel in Seoul and raping a South Korean girl. Suffice to say, the American soldiers I see at night are really loud, screaming profanity and sometimes even taking off their shirts or puking on the subway. But if you ask Koreans if they need American soldiers here, all of them will say yes. Camp Bonifas was one reminder that sometimes America needs to protect other countries, even if no one else will.
All in all, an exciting day. In two weeks I'm taking a Korean cooking class with a chef here, and I'm trying to sign up to volunteer at an orphanage this month too! Will email when the occasion strikes.

Wishing you all a wonderful week!


Neabear said...

Wow! What a lesson reading your daughters letter is for me. So much to learn that I did not know about. What an experience she is having there too! What a thrill it is for you to hear from her too!


Ricki Treleaven said...

Thanks for sharing your daughter's email with us. North Korea scares me! I hate to hear how our soldiers behave over there...very disappointing.

The Cottage Market {Andrea} ♥ said...

Terry -- that was such a fabulous post -- your daughter is a beautiful -- intelligent -- wonderful girl and i am so happy you shared her thoughts and experiences with us -- i find it utterly fascinating! i have many Korean friends and they are pretty amazing people -- those that have been lucky enough to escape North Korea are blessed -- i have to admit -- i think the poison was a better choice than going back -- what a horror!!!! i hope your daughter continues to learn and grow and i am sure of that! hope she can come home soon to visit at least -- i am sure you miss her terribly. wish her a very happy birthday and i hope her cooking class is tons of fun -- i cook vegetarian Korean food and i have to say that i have rice and kim for breakfast with hot sauce just about every day : ) LOL!!!! she is going to love it...if she hasn't gotten the cookbook The Kimchi Chronicles yet -- she really should it is great! sending you all italian with a love for Korean spices! lol!!


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