In 2006, I traveled to North Korea.
The “other half” of my ethnic heritage had been a long held fascination. The American media had presented images of laughable authoritarian figures, strange rituals, and helpless suffering. My parents had instilled a fear of “the other” that they were taught as children in South Korea. So I went to find the truth.
When I got there I learned that it a lot more complicated. The political tensions between North Korea and United States were front and center. Everywhere we looked ideology was trumpeted with a resounding “me against the world” mentality.
But more powerfully, I experienced a sense of warmth and belonging. The people we met spoke to me in the first language I ever knew. They used words that I heard from my mother and the most important people in my life. Their mannerisms and appearance strikingly resembled those of my relatives and friends. And much like my relatives, I understood the pattern of their emotions though I did not necessarily agree. We laughed, we sang, and we danced. Throughout the country, we were surrounded by beautiful landscapes and mountains that convincingly camouflaged the scars from carpet bombings of the Korean War. We also saw the human toll of a deteriorating health system and chronic malnutrition. I went to North Korea to find the truth and I found it in the land and the people.
Kim Jong Il has died and North Korea’s next moves, both internally and externally are unclear. The region and the world are anxiously reviewing a menu of military scenarios. And while this event is destabilizing for the country, collapse is no more certain now than it has been for the past 60 years.
In the midst of this chaos we can’t lose sight of what is most important. Enlightened leaders must discover an opportunity for engagement and peace. For the sake of the truth they must.
*Ricky Y. Choi, MD, MPH, is a Korea Policy Institute Fellow who traveled to North Korea in 2006 with a delegation of Korean Americans delivering humanitarian aid.