Sunday, June 25, 2006

"they realize they've been living like frogs in a well"

The New York Times carries a feature article about North Korean defectors. It is an emotional story about all the work they must do to adjust to life in the free, prosperous South.

On a sprawling campus hidden in farmland here, about 300 North Koreans are learning that, no, actually, it was not the South that started the Korean War.

And, yes, America is an ally, their re-education goes, before broaching the A B C's of capitalism, human rights and democracy. Field trips focus on how to apply for a job or use an automated teller machine. Women are shown the finer points of home decorating; men, the basic skills to fix the home boiler.

My wife and I occasionally go to a restaurant in Evanston called the Dixie Kitchen. They serve Cajun and southern fare there and the decor I would describe as the authentic version of what TGI Friday's wishes to be: there are many old posters on the wall, advertising canned okra and grape nehi, as well as many old household items, like metal washboards. There is even a small, wood-burning stove near the kitchen; the staff uses it to set down trays of food. When we first went there, when we were dating, my wife would point to these old domestic appliances and say, "We used that in Russia, did you have them too?" And I had to explain to her that all of these items were considered antiques, and were only on the wall as a quaint reminder of a forgotten time. We have similar conversations when watching movies made in the '30s and '40s.

But for much of her life she at least enjoyed an open media, and had the opportunity to see more than the apparatchiks had previously allowed. In fact, she learned some of her English from MTV. The North Koreans stumbling into the light of the South had few such opportunities, and it is remarkable that any manage the transition at all.
To hear North Koreans tell it, South Korea is bewildering precisely because it is at once familiar and alien. The South and North share a common language, but in half a century of division, South Koreans have adopted so many foreign words that the newcomers spend hours learning the language spoken in the South.

"Only after 10 years did I understand how the South Korean society works," said Lee Joon Ho, 41, who arrived in South Korea in 1993, before the current wave of defectors.

Of course, because it's the Times, the central issue is that the North Koreans complain of bigotry and discrimination from the South. Some have trouble in their jobs, others just sense an unease from Southerners:
"When people ask me whether I'm an ethnic Korean from China because of my accent, not only do I feel discriminated against, I feel disillusioned," he said, repeating a common complaint.

God forbid the Times tell the central story of the human desire to be freed of their oppressors, and the great contribution to the history of tyranny and fear that Communism has provided. No, better to emphasize the bigotry of a westernized society. They wouldn't want us feeling too good about ourselves: we might decide to free the whole world.

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