Under glaring fluorescent lights, an elderly North Korean woman sits over a snarl of gray yarn, loosening it patiently with her fingers. "Life is like pulling a tangled thread," she says. "If you hurry and worry too much, it'll just make the knot worse. But if you coax and caress it patiently between your hands, you'll see it unravel eventually."
"If Spring Arrives" is one of the yearly reunification plays produced by the Saejowi Initiative for National Integration, a nonprofit NGO that provides mental and medical health care for North Korean defectors. Two of the actors are North Korean defectors, and the play revolves around "Stitches for Reunification," an actual program at Saejowi. Many of the characters are loosely based on real people at Saejowi: the sarcastic Seoulite program manager who favors practical jokes over political correctness, the North Korean factory manager whose brisk common sense keeps people on their toes. Overall, the play is surprisingly tranquil. There is not a single violent scene or theatrical escape, and the characters argue, giggle, weep, and gossip in a peaceful corner of South Korea from the beginning to the end of the play. Any memories of the brutal totalitarian regime they've escaped are recounted quietly, as if from a distance, while stuffing dolls or ironing patterned fabric.
Perhaps this is what made this play so fascinating. Media promoting the plight of North Korean refugees abound, albeit at rather low quality. The journeys of North Korean refugees are often more far-fetched than the wildest K-dramas: leaping over barbed wire, dodging bullets and fighting crocodiles to cross a flooded river, surviving in a mountain and fleeing brutal sexual slavery in a foreign country.
Unfortunately, the horror of these stories makes them easy fodder for voyeuristic ogling. People are interested in North Koreans only because they are North Korean, which is to say that they are always limiting North Korean defectors to their trauma. Even well-meaning movies or nonprofits that help North Korean defectors often portray North Koreans as perpetual heroes or victims, continually displaying their most provocative stories to spark sympathy and donations in our empathy-weary world. And such narratives surely have their value: it was the hellish descriptions of torture and starvation in The Aquariums of Pyongyang that first shocked me into North Korean advocacy, and who can fail to admire the courage of North Korean defectors who share their nightmarish pasts so that we can dream of a better future?
And yet, it was refreshing to see North Koreans portrayed as more than their pain. They were also individual characters with vivid personalities: clumsy dreamers, affectionate mentors, impulsive caretakers. They find great enjoyment singing silly songs, scarfing down blood sausages, frying vegetable fritters, and laughing heartily at each other's mistakes. And they are allowed to make mistakes. The cruel sadness of everything they have lost re-emerges as an obligation to live.
Of course, as William Faulkner once said, "The past is not dead. It is not even past." The North Korean characters continue to be haunted by the places and people they left behind, and at a party, one North Korean defector breaks down crying as she makes her birthday wish: "I just want Korea to reunify so I can go back home and walk in my neighborhood again." It is a poignant moment, one in which we are reminded that for the 34,000 North Korean defectors living in our midst, the current separation of the Korean Peninsula remains an aching and urgent wound. Still, after she blows out the candles, the lights flicker back on. The characters eagerly discuss whether they should eat beef or pork for dinner. And they move into another day of working, laughing, loving and living. They continue to move towards the light.
Opinion written by Esther Ra.
Published on October 21, 2019.
The Korea Times.