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Suki Kim and Fathers’ Day

Suki Kim and Fathers’ Day

by William H. Benson

June 18, 2015

     On Sunday, June 25, 1950, North Korean bombs fell on Seoul, South Korea’s capital, and the civil war began. It ended three years later, on July 27, 1953, with the same division as it had begun, with the Korean peninsula divided into two parts at the 38th parallel, Communist to the North and a democratic-republic to the South. South Koreans now call the war, “the 6-2-5 Upheaval,” but the North Koreans call it “the Fatherland Liberation War,” even though no fatherland was ever liberated.

     In 2011, Suki Kim, a Korean-American woman, then forty-one years old, taught English in Pyongyang, North Korea. In 2014, she published her memoir, Without You, There is No Us, and in it she described her 270 students at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a North Korean college for boys, funded by donations raised by evangelical American Christians. PUST’s teachers were all foreigners, and officials watched them closely.

     Suki explained her situation, “I lived undercover in North Korea, posing as an English teacher. I was born and raised in South Korea, their enemy. I now live in America, their other enemy.”

     The teachers’ “counterparts” and “minders” refused to allow any discussion of religion or missionary work or anything that conflicted with the official party ideology, which, Suki said, was the lie that North Korea is “the world’s most powerful and prosperous nation.”

     She said that North Korea is a gulag posing as a nation, and that PUST was a heavily-guarded prison posing as a school. Her students knew very little of the outside world. For example, they did not know of the world wide web, which made it not quite “world wide.” The students were not permitted to leave the school, and were not allowed to communicate with or see their parents.

     Every book, song, advertisement, newspaper article, and picture was about Kim Jong-Il. Every blank wall space in the school was covered with his picture.

     Suki tried to teach these boys better skills in English composition, but her job was difficult. How could she teach twenty-year-old men how to think and then write an essay, or voice an opinion? All their lives their minders had told them what to think, do, say, and believe, and that they must obey. Critical thinking and truth-telling were not prized commodities in North Korea.

     Officials watched the students’ every move, heard their every word, disallowed them to express their thoughts, and reported all that they did or said. All students knew that if they would commit a single mistake, “unimaginable consequences” from this merciless and brutal regime would result.

     To help her students feel more comfortable with the truth, Suki played the game “Truth and Lies” with them, and then she asked them to write pretend letters to family members. Feeling pressured to obey her assignments, the students often reverted to lies. “When I was in the fifth grade, I cloned a rabbit,” or “I visited China on vacation.” Both were lies. Every knows that no one leaves North Korea.

     Suki grew to adore her students. When she called them “gentlemen,” they giggled and blushed. They understood that “she wanted them to live gentle lives,” which she knew was difficult in that repressive country. There was little she could tell them about life in South Korea or America.

     Americans call the Korean War, the “Forgotten War,” but no Korean can forget the war. The civil war divided families, and caused pain-wracked separations. Mothers lost their sons, wives lost their husbands, and children lost their brothers, never to see or speak or write to them ever again. Once captured, there was no release program. All communication ceased.

     Sixty-five years ago, on June 25, “everything went wrong” inside Korea.

     The Oklahoma National Guard drafted my dad in October of 1950, a month after his wedding. Army officials told him that he now belonged to the 45th Infantry Division, 180th Infantry Regiment, First Battalion, Company C. He went through basic training at Camp Polk, Louisiana, and in April of 1951, a ship carried him through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific Ocean to Hokkaido, Japan.

     In December of 1951, he landed in Korea and was given the job of mechanic, repairing army jeeps and trucks. In August of that same year, after eight months in Korea, he was released from duty and returned home, carrying with him one overwhelming wish, to forget the entire experience and never talk about it. He hated the military. He hated the drill sergeants. He hated others telling him what to do. He hated the war, and he hated being in Korea.

     Yet, he was fortunate, even lucky. Whereas tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Koreans lost their lives, he lived and was reunited with family, friends, and home.

     Fathers’ Day is Sunday. Enjoy the day, remember your father, speak to him if you can, and think of the freedoms we enjoy in the United States of America. At the very least, you and I can tell the truth, and we can write an opinion column.