Ears to Hear

A reflection by Rev. Unzu Lee (Presbyterian Church U.S.A.)

“You may have all heard about the danger of a single story,” with these words Kurt, a PC(USA) mission co-worker stationed in Korea, began his session on the third day of the “Travel Study Workshop for a Korea Peace Treaty.” He was, of course, referring to the TED talk that was given by the Nigerian novelist Chimamunda Ngozi Adichie some years ago.

As a person who was born during the Korean War and who grew up in the southern part of the Korean peninsula after it was divided at the 38th parallel, I am very familiar with the danger of a single story. Growing up in South Korea until the age 14, the single story I heard repeatedly went something like this:

When Korea was liberated from Japanese occupation, there were many Christians in what is now North Korea. But, soon, communists took over the northern part of Korea, and the communists, the “reds,” who do not believe in God, did awful things, especially to those who are “landed” (owning land) and/or Christian. Fearing for their life, many left everything behind and took on a dangerous journey across the demarcation line to seek refuge in the South. Not satisfied by only controlling the northern half of the Korean peninsula, those evil communists attacked the South on June 25, 1950. It was a bloody war! So many people lost their lives at the hands of the “reds.” So many children became orphans. So many people became refugees! Thank goodness that God sent us the Americans to save us! With help from America, those “reds” were pushed back north of the demarcation line. The people in the North since then have been living in a horrible condition without any freedom. We are so lucky to be living in freedom and that Americans are still with us to protect us.

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Rev. Unzu Lee (bottom left) with her family

This is the single story with which I grew up. This single story defined North Korea for me as “the enemy that could not be anything but bad and evil.” The most demonic epithet for a person when I was growing up was “gahn-chup,” a spy for the North. I remember reciting a mantra in primary school, “옆집에 오신 손님, 간첩인가 다시 보자,” which can be roughly translated as, “I see someone visiting my neighbor, I need to take another look at him/her because s/he might be a spy.” We were bombarded with a caricature of a North Korean who was red-skinned and had horns sticking out of their head. Later in the U.S., I came in touch with this image one day when I found a set of books written by North Koreans in a library at UC Berkley. I had been living outside of Korea for a number of years; yet, the image that had been inculcated in my psyche still showed up with an incredible power, shaking me up terribly. All of me trembled in fear, and I froze. This experience made me acutely aware of the power this image constructed by a single story had over me, after all those years. It was a moment of awakening.

The danger of a single story is that it becomes so definitive that it leaves no room to allow any other story because any other story is prejudged by the “truth” of the single story. According to Adiche, this is because of the power attached to that story. She says, “How they [stories] are told, who tells them, when they are told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power,” and that the “power is the ability not to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

This is so true to my experience. There was a clear pattern about who told the story, when the story was told, and how the story was told. Every media outlet told the same story. The story was reinforced by what I learned in school and even in the church.   The story was told whenever the South Korean regime found itself in an unstable situation. I bought into the story just like most people. I bought into it even though my parents were both born and raised in the areas that are now part of North Korea. I never questioned the veracity of the story even though many of my family members such as my father’s father and two sisters were supposedly living there. Somehow it never occurred to me to question how my own family members in the North fit into this story. That is how solidly I had internalized the single story that I was told.

It has been nearly fifty years since I left Korea. And, I can say the same thing about the stories about North Korea that I hear in the U.S. Every time a story about North Korea is told, each one invariably reinforces the same old story, the “definitive story.” The story is simple. North Korea is an “unlivable country where its people suffer tremendously under a totalitarian and secretive regime.” Its leadership are simply “crazy and cannot be trusted.” Put simply, North Korea is a “rogue country.” It exists only as “a threat to civilized nations” such as the U.S. and South Korea. I find that even among the so-called open-minded friends of mine, many have a deep distrust of North Korea. They so firmly believe in the single story about North Korea that they have been told. Every time I hear such a story, I am irritated and I want to say, “but!” However, the censor inside me usually stops me because it is really hard to challenge the power of a single story. For me, it might jeopardize my allegiance to the United States. Even in thinking about it, I already hear in my mind someone’s voice telling me, “Why don’t you go live in North Korea if you don’t like America?”

The danger of the single story told about North Korea is profound. When North Korea is defined only as a rogue country that threatens us, it can never be our equal.  When it is perceived to be nothing but a threat, our choices are limited—that is, to fortify our own defense while preparing our offense to obliterate them if the time comes. To make this known, we have to show North Korea that we are mightier than them, and this is exactly what we have done. The US has had its military presence in South Korea since 1945 until now with the exception of a small presence for a couple years between 1948 and 1950. Moreover, the US and South Korean military forces have annually engaged in massive joint military exercises. The most recent one that took place in March involved 300,000 South Korean troops and 17,000 U.S. soldiers. This same so called “military exercise” has been a serious point of contention for North Korea that has seen it as the US preparing for a pre-emptive attack.  While the single story holds, it is impossible to imagine a peaceful means to engage one another, and probably this is why an armistice treaty that was signed sixty three years ago is still in place.

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Rev. Lee with workshop participants looking out over the border with North Korea

This year I was one of the privileged people who participated in a travel study workshop organized and sponsored by the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK) on May 16 – 23. I did so representing the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.. I believe we were invited to question, “What if there was more to the story?” Throughout our time together, we heard stories that are seldom told and heard.

Let me return to the talk given by the Nigerian novelist Adiche. In her talk she admits that she is just as guilty in the question of the single story, and she shares the cognitive dissonance she experienced on her trip to Mexico. What she witnessed in Mexico simply did not fit into the single story she had heard repeatedly in the U.S. in reference to the immigration debate. She writes:

I remember walking around on my first day in Guadalajara, watching the people going to work, rolling up tortillas in the marketplace, smoking, laughing. I remember first feeling slight surprise. And then I was overwhelmed with shame. I realized that I had been so immersed in the media coverage of Mexicans that they had become one thing in my mind, the abject immigrant. I had bought into the single story of Mexicans, and I could not have been more ashamed of myself. So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.

And, she asks, “So what if before my Mexican trip I had followed the immigration debate from both sides, the U.S. and Mexico?”

So, what if those of us in the U.S. asked a similar question in relation to North Korea or the entire Korean peninsula?  What if we reject the single story and open our ears to hear the stories that North Koreans are trying to tell us? What if we reject the single story and open our ears to South Koreans who have suffered and continue to suffer from the reality of division? What if we reject the single story and open our ears to hear those who really aspire for peace in the Korean peninsula and have faith in North Koreans to pursue peace with them?

In the gospel stories, we find Jesus saying to the crowd who gathered around him, “Those who have ears, let them hear.”  (Matt 11:15)

Do we have ears to hear?

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