Tuesday, April 03, 2007

McDonalds and the DPRK

Ok, so I doubt that McDonalds will market happy eternal leader meals any time soon, but a teenage North Korean refugee in Seoul commented in this Washington Post article that he wishes to one day share a big mac with his friends remaining in North Korea.

More seriously, the article, written by a Korean-American teacher working at a school with North Korean refugees in Seoul, looks at the growing North Korean refugee issue in South Korea and comments on the lack of infrastructure (and lack of interest beyond a superficial level) for dealing with it. Despite public sentiment supporting policies of engagement, little is done for North Korean refugees in South Korea. Instead, most aid goes directly to North Korea.

Clearly, education has been a powerful, transformative force equalizing Korean society, even under colonial rule and especially since liberation. Korea and particularly the Korean education system have benefited from the homogeneity and uniformity of Korean society; less diversity breads less conflict. However, Korea’s economic development combined with the force of globalization, has brought in and continues to bring in non-Koreans in increasing numbers. This new immigration has strained (or threatens to strain) the education (and other social) systems, often prompting racialized, ethno-centric and nationalistic responses.

As education is a key socializing institution, it is a place for North Korean refugees to learn not only important skills but what it means to be South Korean, through rituals, language, practices, etc. Re-socialization is unimaginably difficult, especially given the horrors North Korean refugees faced as children. This difficulty is compounded by a lack of an awareness of and infrastructure to provide support. Given the uniformity in South Korean society, schools provide an arena where North Koreans (and other non-Koreans) are socialized as "others", resulting in high drop-out rates and an inability to function into South Korean citizens.

As Korea has transformed from being an oppressed country (victimized by Japanese colonization and poverty) to the 11th largest economy in the world, it has gained the power to oppress. This power manifests itself in othering non-Koreans, including non-South Koreans.

Living in Korea, I witnessed Korean-American friends experience “not being Korean enough” in Korea. By no means do Korean-Americans lack the same power as North Koreans in South Korea. If anything, Korean-Americans possess a great deal of social and economic power. Still, the differentiation exists. Like the article mentions that North Korean refugees experience feelings of exclusion, I think this phenomenon extends to the larger Korean diaspora. To some extent, I think it’s inexperience with dealing with diversity. Still, the Confucian emphasis on bloodlines and nationalization of Korean ethnic identity perpetuates racism. Another aspect is South Korea becoming more powerful.


Sean said...

Regarding your last paragraph on Korean-Americans, my personal experience is that either they love you or hate you; there is little middle ground. And I think you're right, the lack of diversity is pretty shocking, even amongst South Koreans.

Erin Robinson said...

I asked in a post a few back if anyone knew how much young North Koreans internalized. This article makes it sound like quite a lot of what they are told is accepted. It's amazing that even the elite, who plans to be in the army, believes that he will be constantly fighting Americans and South Koreans. I wonder what people who join the army discover? That they in fact have no real wars to fight? Do they then stay because of the priority placed on the military? Or do they continue to believe that one day they will get to kill those Americans and South Koreans?

Very interesting article, thanks!