Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Commentary on thoughts about visiting North Korea as a Zainichi Korean from Japan

By miho kim, Eclipse Rising
Aired on Apex Express of KPFA 94.1FM, a Pacifica Network syndicate, on June 19, 2008
(archive available at:

The one thing I look forward to visiting in North Korea is Lim-jin
River. Limjin River flows from North to South through the Korean
peninsula, right across the 38 parallel and the demilitarized zone.
Back in the mid-‘50s when a North Korean poet named Se-yong Park wrote
the song “Lim-jin River,” he must have stood by its riverbank -
watching the gushing water steadily flow downstream towards his
ancestral land amongst the vast rice fields in southern Korea -
wishing to be reborn as a bird, to fly over the river hundreds of
miles away to the south. In the song, in fact, he calls out to them in
yearning: “please, messengers of freedom who know no borders, please,
tell me, who divided our motherland? Why can I not return home to the
south? Who took my home away from me forever?”

This song was banned in S. Korea for decades, because of its
controversial “pro-reunification” message. Those who kept asking such
questions were arrested and tortured, because they posed a threat to
S. Korea’s national security. No doubt, it was a criminal offense to
ask such a thing.

Twenty years after Lim-jin River was released, far across the sea on
Japanese soil, I cried out this very question, covered in blood,
having just been rescued by strangers from a lynch mob of classmates,
their teachers and neighbors. Except I asked my mother and not a bird.
And my mother, instead of flying high up in the clear blue sky, buried
her head low into her apron, as if she’d transformed into a trembling
mass of flesh, sunk into the floor into the dark depth of nothingness.
Though she said nothing, her tears told me somehow, that she
desperately wanted to give me an answer and tried hard to look, but
could not, because she was inferior as a Korean, and I, inferior as a
Korean, deserved no answer. Then, we both wailed, mending my fresh
wounds and stitches, for the god-awful curse to have to be Koreans in

And so, I also learned at an early age through my mother’s tears, that
this is a criminally awful question to ask.

Clearly, I lived a colonial experience, thirty years after
colonization of Korea supposedly ended. And so did tens of thousands
of other zainichi Koreans who, despite being overwhelmingly from the
southern rural regions of the Korean peninsula, “returned” to N. Korea
so they could finally live as Koreans, as human beings, with dignity
and pride, and join the cause for true liberation of Korean peoples
from foreign occupation.

Seyong Park was a newly arrived N Korean returnee from Japan when he
wrote Lim-jin River in 1957. He was finally ‘home’ now - and yet, he
still yearned for the long-lost home to the south. What’s really
tragic is that he, or any zainichi for that matter, had the least to
say in the installation of the “38 parallel,” one of the most heavily
fortified borders in the world. Just like they had the least to say in
the installation of a Japanese colony on their territory half a
century earlier. One hurdle after another befalls us – so massive,
absolute, and beyond our humanly control – pushing the “home” we keep
searching for farther and farther away from us, cutting off our spirit
from the source of its very roots, one generation after another.

Zainichi Koreans are those for whom the dream of being rooted, that
solid sense of belonging, whether it be motherland, ancestral home, or
adopted home, has always been a reward magnanimously bestowed upon us
by the host nation-state, whether it be Japan, S. Korea or N Korea.
It’s not free – but a reward for acquisition, if not performance of, a
fully nationalistic identity and ethnic consciousness as prescribed to

A Korean saying goes, “fighting of whales break the backs of shrimps.”
Politics of the Cold War and ever-growing imperialist endeavors of the
United States and its cronies like Japan have broken the back of the
Korean peninsula as well as the Korean people, including the zainichi
communities. Thoroughly embarrassing, the US demonstrates its sense of
exceptionalism when it utters references like “axis of evil” for N
Korea without any indication that it recognizes itself to have been
the whale for as long as N Korea has been in existence, if not even

Standing on the riverbank of the Lim-jin River, I hope to pick up
where Se-yong Park left off, seeking the very answer to his question,
so that my generation is the last to shed tears that he, or my mother
did. Somehow, we must ensure for the next, if not the current,
generation of zainichi the right to redefine their “homes” as freely
as the birds above the Lim-jin River - and reclaim their roots like
its ever-abundant watershed in the pristine mountains north of
Pyongyang. And when all Korean people find their respective ways
there, that’s what I call reunification of a nation. 

Classic version of the song 'Lim-jin River' on Youtube:

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