On Being Korean

Sometimes people ask me whether I’m North or South Korean. Certainly, in the current internal climate, that question must seem more important to some.

There could be a lot of answers to this question. Do you want to know where my parents immigrated from when they flew into JFK over thirty years ago to make a new life? The answer is South Korea, Seoul to be specific. But where is my family really from? Korea. There was no North or South when my parents were born and while the political status may have changed many times over the course of the life they lived before they stepped foot in America, they are from everywhere– from the north, from the south, from the countryside, from the city. They are from the Land of Morning Calm.

I don’t want to say the North-South question offends me, but it does bother me because it reflects a fundamental ignorance of the situation and the Korean experience and outlook. First, if you’re a Korean in America, you or your family immigrated from South Korea. Nobody immigrates from North Korea. You defect from North Korea and you’ll be hard pressed to find anybody who has successfully. Or you’re a Korean national visiting the States, which most likely makes you a South Korean national. There aren’t many North Koreans vacationing or going to school in the US.

But more importantly, these North-South distinctions are just political ones, just words that remind us of an over fifty-years old war that still continues to this day. But some say that with such a deep division, the rapid development of such different political and socioeconomic states, especially with the isolation and cult of personality built in the North, is it really just a political distinction anymore? Haven’t two contemporary cultures developed that only make the divide even greater? Can you really call yourselves one people anymore?

My answer is yes. Koreans share a much longer history and commonality than our recent history in the international arena belies. A fifty year divide that is the “tragic consequence of superpower rivalry at end of World War II” cannot wipe out hundreds of years of history, culture, family. And this recent history is the history of all Koreans, no matter which side you are on. It is the struggle and the suffering of the Korean people as a whole around the world. Han. Those are still our brothers we look out across the DMZ, both literally and figuratively. We are one people and we still hope for reunification into our one true nation. Han nara.

So at the end of the day, am I North or South Korean? I’m just Korean. To be exact, I’m Korean American, American born.