Prologue, June 2018: Since I wrote this story back in 2014, the world has changed. My life has also changed. I am nearing 40. Which, the world suggests is an era in which I should be nearing some kind of mid-life crisis. Begrudgingly, I must admit that lately, I am indeed feeling all sorts of strange emotions about life, my place in this world, and general unease about the state of the world and my connection and contribution to it. I have tried to follow my heart, making and taking no reservations, but alas, the ground seems a little soft lately.
North Korea, of course, is back in the news. Media reports follow a similar tired storyline. It’s not a place that is served well by simplified narrative. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains a strange exotic place with an allure for those who seek a new adventure (political or otherwise)- very few places in our world remain so mysterious and unseen. This will perhaps change, but let’s see.
A new US Administration is again seeking to mark its legacy in international affairs by engaging the last frontier of diplomacy- ironically led by a team that has displayed very little semblance of what might be considered sensibility, tact, or awareness of history. That said, this could wind up being one of those “even a broken clock is right twice a day” situations. The latest high-stakes push for international affairs legacy might just fall into making history with the Hermit Kingdom known as North Korea- but sustained positive impact? That’s not so simple.
There may be entertainment value in the Kim-Trump Summit in Singapore, but deal or no deal (“art” be damned) there are real consequences and the well-being of millions of human lives hanging in the balance. May that never be forgotten.
The latest news on the US engaging North Korea amuses the political science wonk in me- but also troubles me. The fresh wave of coverage make me recall my journey in life- the unique and special journey I took to my grandmother’s home country. Much of my life has been driven by curiosity, but along the way, it has not come without its own tolls. The recent spate of news also brings back the sorrow of my grandparents (the ones I know and don’t know), perhaps the unspoken feelings my parents carry with them. I wonder how much of that I also carry and will pass onto my children.
I reread some of my old journal entries from 2003. It hit me like an old wave of memories that are both distant but still painfully real. My grandmother nonchalantly regaled tales of her escape from North Korea with a casualness that I could not quite fully grasp or appreciate. There were details of her story that strike me with much more poignancy today than initially appreciated back when I first wrote this piece in 2014. For example, my old notes of our conversations documented her insight that she was told to be alert of the scent of cigarette smoke during her escape to South Korea, because it indicated North Korean soldiers were nearby and would complicate her passage to the South. These were the memories imprinted on the mind of a 90 year old woman- and uttered without a flinch of understanding how out of the ordinary that kind of memory ought to be. That slice of reality juxtaposed with my children’s love of soft French cheese- would that dazzle her or annoy her? I don’t know. But I do know that I love her and my children equally. Maybe it’s the soju I have had tonight, but I miss her and question my place in this world today, in 2018. Is it worthy of her sacrifice? Had our places been swapped, would I have been savvy enough and strong enough to make the journey?
What follows, is my initial account from 2014- with an epilogue…
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Admittedly, a grown-ass 35 year old writing about losing his grandmother is nothing particularly remarkable or noteworthy. By this point in life, most of us have lost friends, parents, siblings, and other kin. Some even start and end life never having had some of these relationships. None of these realities make the sadness in my heart any less real or make the pangs of sorrow ache any less. My friends will also attest to the fact that I am not very good at goodbyes. So this is how I choose to both grieve and celebrate my grandmother’s life.
A woman born in Pyongyang in 1918, like many others, my grandmother arduously and successfully sought refuge in the South during the Korean War- but never got to see her hometown again. They say North Korea is the most closed country on the planet, but I needed to crack it open if ever so slightly to get a glimpse into her world. These words represent a part of the journey.
I have always been close to my grandmother and often reminded by my relatives that she favored me as a child. This was uncomfortable knowledge as a young boy (and frankly, I do not understand why), but I loved my grandmother for it and basked in her affection.
My family immigrated to the United States when I was 4, but we made regular trips back to Seoul and many a summer were spent under her care. I am not quite sure when I first realized she was born in North Korea. Her dialect was at times different (peppered with Japanese words and phrases, and why that was so is another can of worms entirely), and I do vaguely remember neighbors and local shopkeepers on her street referring to her as the “ee-book halmunee” (grandmother from North Korea).
In the latter half of my teenage years, this tidbit about my grandmother utterly fascinated me. I wanted to learn all there was to know about her heritage. She never spoke of it, and I didn’t pry. Later on, I realized this was likely due to the South Korean government’s heavy-handed approach to North Korean refugees and defectors (understandably possible spies in their estimation) and related public campaigns imparting fear in the immediate aftermath of the Korean War.
As it turns out, there wasn’t much to learn from other sources either; an utter dearth of information resided in books and on the fledgling internet. Even so, I was determined to soak up all available information and even chose to write my undergraduate thesis on “US Foreign Policy on North Korea.” Rather than quenching my curiosity, this exercise only confirmed there was so much more that I did not know and could not know with the set of resources available to me at the time.
In the name of personal curiosity and wanting, no needing, to understand this unknown world, I sought out opportunities to directly experience this enigmatic country of my grandmother’s past. A country that despite sitting a little over a 100 miles from where I was born- might as well have been a few planets away. Shortly after completing my undergraduate studies, I stumbled upon a boutique humanitarian assistance organization that worked exclusively in North Korea. The door opened just a crack.
When my grandmother turned 80, she would end visits by saying that it could be the last time I would see her alive. I would always hug her and remind her that she mentioned the same words the previous time we parted.
When my grandmother turned 90, the preemptive goodbyes stopped- but I began saying them in my head.
The aid organization specialized in delivering diagnostic equipment and medication to treat tuberculosis. Unlike most organizations that have mixed results when it comes to aid effectiveness in North Korea, this organization was an outlier with a rather good track record. Among other advantages, supporting the treatment of infectious disease was a key to this performance; getting medical supplies to tuberculosis clinics ensured that those goods would not be diverted. See, even crooked government officials don’t want to get tuberculosis- sadly considered a fatal disease by the North Korean public. Fear of catching a highly treatable disease is a useful dynamic when it comes to fending off less than noble bureaucrats. Even official government “guides” and “minders” would step back and let you roam about rural medical facilities without supervision.
Among my many responsibilities, I had the opportunity to design, implement, and monitor aid delivery mechanisms. Looking back, all of this seems quite surreal, but I finally found my opportunity to travel to North Korea. Everything was new, and I knew this was a special experience. In some sense, I felt like an astronaut traveling to space. What I would eventually discover is that it was more akin to traveling back in time. I was too excited to think about any risks I was taking (and what 23 year old ponders such matters deeply), but remember feeling extremely nervous on the refurbished Soviet jet from the 1950s that services the Air Koryo flight from Beijing to Pyongyang. The seats are cramped. No one talks to one another (seriously who takes this flight?!). Condensation fogs the windows during flight. Many troubling and uncomfortable thoughts filled my mind like, “There are a lot of moving parts on this aircraft, presumably constructed by the highest Russian ‘bidder,’ utilized heavily, and eventually passed on to their North Korean comrades…”
The journey itself takes a whole lot longer than it should. A direct flight from Seoul to Pyongyang should really take no more than 40 minutes, but the De-Militarized Zone complicates matters. Also, because the US and North Korea don’t maintain diplomatic relations, I would have to pick my visa up in the North Korean Embassy in Beijing (the North Korean Mission to the UN in New York acts as the unofficial Embassy to the US and facilitates all necessary paperwork and communications), so there are always a few extra days of travel that needed to be built in. It is also possible to catch a train in from parts of China or Vladivostok (which would have been interesting) but why add more hurdles to the trip?
Upon arrival, the empty airport whirs to life. Each traveler’s visa for North Korea is verified and promptly removed. Sometimes passports are also taken away throughout the duration of the trip. That bit always made me a little nervous, but it was always returned at the end of my trips. A pretty thorough search of belongings takes place, primarily for religious material or surveillance equipment. Back then, mobile wasn’t quite what it is today, and I wonder what the North Koreans would think about Google Glass…
Before even checking into a hotel, the North Korean guide would typically request a visit to pay respect to the statue of Kim Il-Sung or his mausoleum straight from the airport. Then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright caused quite the controversy by bowing to the dead body of Kim Il-Sung during her visit to North Korea. The way to get around this is to instead request a short trip to “Mangyongdae”- or the recreated birthplace of Kim Il-Sung according to official propaganda. It’s the perfect compromise, as you don’t offend your North Korean hosts and also avoid having to bow to the former leader of North Korea. The site itself is fascinating, complete with scores of North Korean schoolchildren from the countryside in full uniform visiting the park that houses the “birthplace.”
Once I hit the ground, personal curiosity aside I had a job to do and a grim reality to absorb. Pyongyang was an eerily grey city, and other North Korean cities are equally drab, albeit on a smaller scale. Electricity would cut in and out constantly. Guides accompanied you everywhere. As mentioned earlier, everything relied on getting aid shipments on site- and not to the more modern facilities (even there you can still see through the cracks though) in the heart of Pyongyang that are regular stops for the few foreigners who are granted visas. Many international aid organizations consider North Korea the final “aid frontier,” and North Korean officials have a tendency to take advantage of this mentality. These officials were also highly sensitive to how the international aid community portrayed Africa in the 80s and 90s and did their best to choreograph visits for foreigners. You really have to fight to get where you need to go, but it is possible. And what awaits, is really grim.
Seeing doctors growing cotton for bandages to treat their patients and working x-ray machines without film (exposing themselves to unhealthy doses of radiation) will leave a mark on you. Remembering care centers full of patients who have been quarantined to die because of a lack of access to $25 worth of medication will haunt you. It has been said that, “a hungry child knows no politics,” but to see that child in person, politics or no politics, and to know there is nothing you can do to help this specific child, is a sobering and painful experience, a life-changing experience.
I do understand the politics of this situation. However, I still question the reality and impact of moves that deny basic care and assistance to those who are powerless at the very bottom of a system. While I knew I didn’t have the power or influence to affect these dynamics or change the world overnight, I knew that I could personally commit to being mindful of and working to alleviate human suffering, systemically driven or not.
This belief has guided my choice of education and will continue to guide my professional choices- and I have my grandmother to thank.
The day my grandmother passed away, I was actually very close to her, in transit at an airport in Korea- June 1, 2014.
I wrote my final words to my grandmother not knowing they would be my last. I only wish I had been more eloquent- that I would have called or visited one last time instead.
“To my lovely grandmother, whom I cannot visit while passing through Seoul- you are always a part of me and the lives of those who both continue on through me or have crossed paths with me in meaningful ways.
More than anything or anyone else, you have helped me to understand the value of a life well-lived and how our thoughts and actions can have lasting impact and influence.
Tides turn. Tides shift. But you have shown me how to rise above it all. You have instilled in me an unshakable confidence. It is this I hope to pass on to my boys. No, I know that I do not have to pass it on- because it lives in them.”
This look into North Korea opened up a side of my grandmother I had never seen before. She began to regale me with tales of her childhood, wonderful stories about exploits with friends by the river and older cousins who would gift her colorful dresses during the holidays.
To expedite this process, I studied the North Korean language seriously, and even brought back a dictionary from Pyongyang. From a pure linguistic perspective, the way the South Korean language has evolved in juxtaposition to the stagnant North Korean language since 1950 is fascinating. It is perhaps better to essentially consider them two different languages (likely very troubling to Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel). My aunt and I would thumb through the dictionary looking for words we were unfamiliar with and ask my grandmother about them. To our delight, she would always confirm their meanings.
I brought back a stone from my grandmother’s home city. She promptly put it under her pillow and slept on it every night. Each trip I made was an opportunity to bring back a little part of her unreachable home.
At the end of one of my final aid monitoring trips to North Korea, I brought back a bottle of Pyongyang soju (a popular clear Korean liquor)- that night my grandmother shared stories that had been locked up inside for decades. I listened quietly as she told me about her younger brother for the first time; he hadn’t made it to the South, and she suspected he was still in the North.
The harrowing tale of her experience coming across the border to the South was remarkable. It involved paying guides, hiding in stables, and the agony of temporarily losing one of her children during the trek.
She implored me to look into the whereabouts of her younger brother and to bring back any news about her village. My grandmother carefully articulated and repeated her brother’s name and the name of her village in Pyongyang (complete with the mention of a local bridge in its proximity) so that I would not forget.
And I have still not forgotten.
My unique and fascinating experience came at a cost.
And I have to confess, I wasn’t completely honest with my grandmother. I allowed her to take a lie to the grave.
Among the eclectic circle of folks who worked the North Korean humanitarian aid circuit, we used to joke that there were two types of North Korean officials- apples and tomatoes. Despite sporting Kim Il-Sung badges and spouting hard-line rhetoric, “apples” were more progressive, with capitalistic intent peeking through their actions. These were the “wheelers and dealers”- red on the outside, white on the inside. The “tomatoes” were Communists through and through- cold and stoic, and you really didn’t have to question where you stood with them as it always appeared on their faces. Appeals to the common proletariat and public good, especially if genuine, resonated very well with these folks. So ironically, the tomatoes were the more straightforward and predictable players. When tomatoes stopped scowling and eventually spoke in support of an idea, you didn’t have to question what ulterior motives were at play.
On one occasion, I asked a North Korean diplomat I regularly interacted with (a particularly red tomato) about my grandmother’s hometown. I only mentioned the name of the village. Matter-of-factly, he cited the village’s position by the bridge my grandmother noted and said the entire area had been flattened by airstrikes like most of Pyongyang during the War.
North Koreans have been known to seek financial gain by exploiting these types of situations, and so sadly I knew there was no reason to doubt this assessment.
My grandmother asked a few times if I had looked into the matter. I never told her what I had discovered. And it still weighs heavily on my heart. But who am I to kill an old woman’s desire to see her home? Would I have wanted to know?
I don’t know.
We often marvel at the elderly and seek profound answers about life or clues to longevity. I would often pepper my grandmother with questions about what she wanted to tell my unborn children. If I pestered her enough, she would slyly say, “tell them I want to see them, and that they should study hard.”
Life is just about living.
Some costs, I did not quite understand at the time. My identity was challenged. My privacy was violated. Intelligence and intelligence are sometimes mutually exclusive. The ideals the United States were founded on are sometimes cast off carelessly, freedoms and rights built up over centuries rendered obsolete by men and women who paint with broad unsophisticated strokes. What is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to a black box operating in a black room behind closed doors? The opaque world and dynamics that Edward Snowden has shed some light on in recent days have long operated in the shadows- and even more boldly in those early post-9/11 and “Axis of Evil” hued days.
Despite these unfortunate things, I felt, learned, and gained so much more. These tough experiences have strengthened my views and stoked my passion for social justice and transparency- and I have my grandmother to thank.
One of my personal heroes recently told me, “Life is short- and even shorter than you think.” It wasn’t imparted to me in the context of memorializing the passing of a loved one, but somehow I am reminded of those words and more deeply understand their significance.
I feel fortunate that my children were able to meet their great-grandmother this past fall. I had pushed this trip back given professional obligations and even briefly considering delaying the trip even further to a to-be-determined time. All of this is a massive wake-up call to me, but I am still grateful that my final memory of my grandmother is of her playing with, feeding, holding, and kissing my children.
My children are unlikely to remember these moments or recall meeting their great-grandmother at all, but that does not tarnish the fact that this extraordinary exchange took place- or that our existence owes itself to the tenuous journey of a brave woman who trekked across a war-torn country in search of a new life. I hope the tale of their great-grandmother inspires and infuses a sense of purpose and confidence.
Life knocks us all down. Sometimes there are no reasons why, often the best explanation the drawing of an arbitrary line or ungrounded and incomplete views formulated in the dark- these things can wreak havoc in unimaginable ways. Even in those situations, when one is left with nothing and pockets only have room for hands, I hope my children realize there is always a way forward- the same way I draw strength and confidence from my grandmother today, in this very moment.
Only after having my own children do I truly appreciate what was at stake during those scary bomb-filled days, where one wrong step or turn could have wiped us all clean off of history’s fading pages- the lives of everyone else who will be a part of our family tree will always owe something to my grandmother.
And while the rest of those who pass does little to assuage the unrest of those who remain, when we hug each other, we are also hugging her.
I want to end with an entry I scrawled in my journal at the end of a humanitarian aid monitoring trip to North Korea in 2003.
On the way back to the States, I would always stop in Seoul and spend a few days with my grandmother. I will always cherish and never forget those moments- this moment in particular:
“Sleeping next to my grandmother is priceless.
She lays out a blanket and pillow for me in her room. While visiting, jet lag often keeps me from sleeping well at night, so I will glance over at the rhythmic rise and fall of her little frame. I find it strangely therapeutic.
After my latest trip, I brought my grandmother a bottle of Pyongyang soju, a traditional Korean liquor from her hometown. My 85-year old grandmother does not drink, but she poured me a glass. I returned the favor. She carefully lifted her cup, and I followed. She softly cried out, ‘as I think of my home….’ and then downed the contents. Her face immediately scrunched up due to the strength of the alcohol.
I will never forget my grandmother’s face in that moment, the picture of unquenchable yearning. I was able to momentarily feel that longing she had for a home that she could never return to, a home she has not seen in over 50 years. I quietly listened to her dwindling hope that maybe, just maybe, despite word-of-mouth reports to the contrary, her younger brother was alive somewhere in the North. I will never know this kind of sorrow. But I live with the knowledge that my grandmother’s home no longer exists.
The night gently wraps us like a blanket. I close my eyes and listen. I synchronize my breaths to hers. When she gently exhales, she breathes as if to push life into my quiet body.
I dare not breathe too deeply in fear of taking more than she is capable of giving and as not to disturb this delicate balance of tranquility.
This is peace.
This is life.”
I love you, halmunee. We’ll miss you.
Epilogue- May 2018:
It has been four years since my grandmother has passed. I miss her dearly. She enters my consciousness with regular frequency, but I deflect accepting her passing with as much frequency. I haven’t visited Korea since her passing. I just can’t get myself to visit the country of my birth. In part, it is still to preserve my last memories of her- those warm memories of her playing with my children. I am very grateful my children had a chance to see her- to feel her. I know this may not be healthy, but I don’t know of any other way to deal with my grief.
Though I cannot explain it, Nepal has become a country that I feel an innate connection to. My professional endeavors between the years of 2014–2017 took me to Nepal frequently, and I feel an incredible sense of kinship and friendship with the country and its people. It helps that Nepalis see me as one of their own. Much like my life at home in the US, I can blend in and on occasion offer no disruption to the daily turning of life’s wheels. I have been blessed with deep and real friendships in my adult life that I did not anticipate.
On one trip to Nepal in 2015, I woke up early and walked over to Pashuputinath Temple. It’s considered the holiest of Hindu sites in Nepal, and technically not open to those who are not Hindu. Practically, this probably keeps the Western tourists out and limits the distraction their presence might bring. The fact that I am considered on the surface Nepali allows me access to this site. I respect all religions, so I feel no guilt in walking into the temple, paying my respects, and going about the rest of my day.
One morning, I walked past an elderly woman selling fruit outside the temple in Kathmandu. A few seconds after I passed by, a piece of fruit dropped from her stand and dribbled onto the road.
I paused for a moment, picked it up, and returned it to her table. In turn, she beamed a bright smile- and for a moment, I lost my sense of place. In the moment, I did not understand why, but I felt an incredible warmth through this casual interaction. The old woman’s beaming smile spoke to me- it felt familiar. I felt peace. It was my grandmother’s smile.
Only when I returned to my hotel room did I realize that I felt my grandmother’s spirit. I checked my calendar- it was the anniversary of her passing. My grandmother found a way to speak to me. I was moved. I felt sorrow. Like when she passed, I was far away from her. But beyond anything else, I was grateful to have seen her smile again.
Life has taken me many different places since then. Some expected and intended, and other places that have startled me- both in terms of destination and the path there. The future remains unwritten, and I am still grappling with my lot in life.
Life remains unfair- and really, what is fair? If life was fair, there would be no injustice to fight, no status quo to upend. We can either fight injustice or be injustice- though sometimes those who claim to be fighting injustice are merely perpetuating or institutionalizing it. That’s an irony that complicates my view of the world, but perhaps that can be left for another day, another year. But more than anything else, what I continue to realize is that life must move on, keeping family close. In the end, family is all that matters- both blood and the friends who become family.
I hope my grandmother is still proud, of my imperfections, that are in part, her imperfections. These imperfections are what make our lives real.
We still miss you, halmunee.
It is particularly cruel that the person I wrote this for cannot read these words. But it’s ok- we lived and shared it.