Sejin Pak, South Australia and Northern Territory Regional Meeting
I thought I had thought about this matter many times, but when I sat down this time to write about it, I found that it is not so simple.
A simple version of the story, commonly understood by others who know a little bit about me, would be that I have family ties in North Korea. It is true that my maternal grandfather lived in North Korea. He died and his grave is in Pyongyang. His son, ie, my mother’s brother, thus an uncle to me, and his children and grandchildren are there. This kinship tie with the people in North Korea would a most natural basis for desiring peace with North Korea.
This version of the story is not untrue, but not quite adequate when I consider how the peace concern arose in my mind (or heart) and how I think about my ties with North Korea, or even South Korea where I was born.
I visited North Korea for the first time in 2017, only last year. I visited my grandfather’s cemetery, met uncle and his children for the first time in my life. Unlike most Koreans who visit North Korea, I did not consider North Korea “my country”. It requires explanation, but I did not consider even South Korea where I was born and grew up, “my country”. Technically, of course, I am a citizen of Australia, and Canada, therefore neither South Korea nor North Korea is my country of citizenship. But, of course, what matters is whether I identify culturally and emotionally with either Korea. To some degree, I do. But I do also with other countries where I have lived, especially Australia and Canada where I lived for long periods, but also with USA and Japan, in each of which I lived four years.
Another way to think about it is the question of loyalty to a country. South Korea is the country of my birth, but not a country of my loyalty. However, it does not mean that my loyalty is toward the country of my citizenship either. It may sound strange if I say I am not loyal to any country, but another way of putting is that I feel more like a global citizen whose identity is not based on citizenship or country, or even ethnic background. This situation is not uncommon to many people in this age of global migration. But it is especially true in my case when my migrant background is considered: 15 years in South Korea, 5 years in Brazil, 15 years in Canada, 4 years in the USA, 4 years in Japan, and 27 years in Australia. It is no wonder that I do not relate when someone says “in your country” to mean South Korea. I do not react to the utterance, but cannot help murmuring to myself “my country?”
The issue of concern and commitment is closely tied to one’s identity, especially “spiritual” identity. Spiritual identity is not necessarily best defined by one’s place of birth or ethnic background. This point is almost obvious when a person belong to the majority, but not so when the person is of minority, migrant or “ethnic” background.
So, what I am saying is that my peace concern with North Korea, in fact with the whole of northeast Asia, is tied to my identity as a spiritual being. To say this much is easy, but to actually elaborate the details to make sense to me and to others is not so simple, I find. It will have to be an autobiography, a book! And I am, of course, not prepared to write one yet. But this occasion led me to consider at least briefly what key factors in my life led me to the peace concern on North Korea. I put the factors into a drawing.
I seems that three factors are important in the early period of my life, that is my twenties in the 1970s. They are 1] immigrant youth, 2] my personality: contemplative disposition, and 3] family background, especially mother’s role.
1] My family migrated to Brazil in 1964 when I was 15, and re-migrated to Canada in 1969. In this period of age 15-25 I was a migrant youth going through two countries and two languages, and this was important in shaping me in terms of cultural adjustment and identity formation. Learning new languages and adjusting to a new society was challenging, but it was the experience of discrimination in the white majority society that left a strong mark on me. My personal experience was expanded by my book learning of the situation of blacks and native Indians in North America. This lead to the development of my concern with discriminated minorities anywhere.
2] My contemplative, asocial, personality lead me to major in physics in university (U of Toronto), but with philosophy as non-major interest. My interest in philosophy combined with my concern with inequality led to an interest in Marxism and critique of capitalism, and in human liberation. It was around the same time that I also read M. Gandhi’s autobiography and Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain. These streams combined with my Buddhist family background to form the backbone of my spiritual identity.
3] Added to this was my family ties with North Korea, which initially were not so important to me, but became so through my mother’s political activism. North Korea did not mean much to me (or to my mother) until 1974 when our family, which at the time was living in Toronto, Canada, learned that my maternal grandfather, who had been regarded as “disappeared” in 1949 and “dead” by 1960s, was alive and living in North Korea, 25 years after his disappearance.
The case of divided family was very common in Korea due to the division of Korea into two parts and the War in 1950-53, and lack of exchanges between North and South afterwards. Millions of people had divided families. In many cases, they did not know whether the missing family members were alive or dead. My mother had hope that her father might be still alive in the North, and since moving to Canada, had tried to contact the North Korean representatives in the UN regarding information about him. She did not get much useful response from them, but in 1974, read an article about our grandfather in a newspaper from North Korea that was circulating among the ethnic Koreans in North America. He was by then already nearly 90 years old. The article was autobiographical: he said he came to North Korea in 1949 and was welcomed by the leader, Kim Il Sung; and, thanks to the “Great Leader”, he was able to serve North Korean nation building in various capacities. In fact, he had been a major industrialist in the mining field during the colonial period in Korea under the Japanese rule. His experience and expertise would have been useful whether in South or North Korea.
Soon after Imperial Japan lost the war, Korea, rather than becoming an independent nation, was divided into two parts by the US and the Soviet Union. While some people, like the landlords and Christians, in North Korea moved to South, some people in South Korea moved to North Korea. My grandfather, a socialist-leaning industrialist, not being happy with the US military rule and anti-communist policy toward the labour and business, voluntarily went North thinking that that was where he could be more useful, even though he was already in his 60’s.
My mother decided to go to North Korea to see her father despite the anti-communist sentiment not only in South Korea but also in the Korean community in Toronto. Having met him, she gained a new sense of mission to work toward the peaceful reunification of the two Koreas. The ten years or so (1974-1984) that followed her meeting with her father in North Korea was a period of political activism for her. Her political activism aligned with a political line called “the unification movement” that was shared by some Koreans in North America, but opposed by the majority line, “the democracy movement”. Some explanation of the political context of the time is necessary here. South Korea in the 1970s was an anti-communist dictatorship, and this gave rise to the democracy movement within South Korea as well as among the overseas Korean communities. However, the democracy movement was still largely anti-communist in feeling. And in North America, those who advocated the “unification movement” were regarded as communist sympathisers.
As a PhD student in physics in latter part of 1970s, I had many Korean postgrad students in various disciplines as friends. We were all supportive of the democracy movement in South Korea and had organised ourselves for study and conference on the issue. One thing that distinguished me from others was that, like my mother, I did not share the anti-communism of the democracy movement among the Koreans. The net result of my mother’s political activism was that our family was regarded a “communist family”. Friends and acquaintances, and even relatives, cut relationship with us. My mother was heartbroken when the sister she was very close to cut ties with her. I did not necessarily agree with everything my mother was doing politically, but accepted her position as that of a different religion. But my Korean friends also cut relationships with me. People were afraid of being associated with the “communist family”.
This situation was a turning point in my life. I had decided to give up the idea of pursuing an academic career teaching physics in South Korea. Until then, I thought I wanted to contribute to the development of South Korea by returning there with a PhD degree in physics. But being labelled as a communist, my dream of teaching physics in South Korea was gone. Under this situation, doing research in physics became meaningless, I wanted study the great political and social transformation in East Asia that shaped our family’s history and drama. I also wanted to leave Toronto where this little drama had happened to our family.
What happened since then was that I pursued PhD in sociology with geographic area focus on Japan, and eventually came to Australia for a university teaching post. In the meanwhile, my mother also distanced herself from political activism but continued with peace concerns at a spiritual level: reflecting on and resolving historically accumulated wounds and hatred in the hearts and minds of Korean people became her main concern. Because she lived in Toronto, Canada, and I in Adelaide, Australia, I did not know well how she lived. This situation changed in the 2000’s when I helped her in the process of writing an autobiography. She had about thirty diary notebooks that I did not know existed. In them was revealed her exploration of peace concern with Korea and Koreans at a spiritual level.
In the book, it appeared as if she was carrying on her father’s work. And it also appeared as if her children were carrying on that work. I thought I had decided everything I did in my life, but it could also be seen that I am carrying on something over generations. My mother passed away in 2013 at age 91. I retired in 2015. I decided to put my time and energy to more consciously carry on my peace work. This is not because I am a Korean. I think, however, I would be most useful in the peace building work with North Korea. Moreover, I do not deny that the spirit of my grandfather and my mother may play a role.