‘If Spring Ar­rives’

The Korea Times - - OPINION - By Es­ther Ra Es­ther Ra (es­ther­hae­[email protected]) is au­thor of “Book of Un­trans­lat­able Things (Grayson Books, 2018).”

Un­der glar­ing flu­o­res­cent lights, an el­derly North Korean woman sits over a snarl of gray yarn, loos­en­ing it pa­tiently with her fin­gers. “Life is like pulling a tan­gled thread,” she says. “If you hurry and worry too much, it’ll just make the knot worse. But if you coax and ca­ress it pa­tiently be­tween your hands, you’ll see it un­ravel even­tu­ally.”

“If Spring Ar­rives” is one of the yearly re­uni­fi­ca­tion plays pro­duced by the Sae­jowi Ini­tia­tive for Na­tional In­te­gra­tion, a non­profit NGO that pro­vides men­tal and med­i­cal health care for North Korean de­fec­tors. Two of the ac­tors are North Korean de­fec­tors, and the play re­volves around “Stitches for Re­uni­fi­ca­tion,” an ac­tual pro­gram at Sae­jowi. Many of the char­ac­ters are loosely based on real peo­ple at Sae­jowi: the sar­cas­tic Seoulite pro­gram man­ager who fa­vors prac­ti­cal jokes over po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, the North Korean fac­tory man­ager whose brisk com­mon sense keeps peo­ple on their toes. Over­all, the play is sur­pris­ingly tran­quil. There is not a sin­gle vi­o­lent scene or the­atri­cal es­cape, and the char­ac­ters ar­gue, gig­gle, weep, and gos­sip in a peace­ful cor­ner of South Korea from the be­gin­ning to the end of the play. Any mem­o­ries of the bru­tal to­tal­i­tar­ian regime they’ve es­caped are re­counted qui­etly, as if from a dis­tance, while stuff­ing dolls or iron­ing pat­terned fab­ric.

Per­haps this is what made this play so fas­ci­nat­ing. Me­dia pro­mot­ing the plight of North Korean refugees abound, al­beit at rather low qual­ity. The jour­neys of North Korean refugees are of­ten more far-fetched than the wildest K-dra­mas: leap­ing over barbed wire, dodg­ing bul­lets, sur­viv­ing in a moun­tain and flee­ing bru­tal sex­ual slav­ery in a for­eign coun­try.

Un­for­tu­nately, the hor­ror of these sto­ries makes them easy fod­der for voyeuris­tic ogling. Peo­ple are in­ter­ested in North Kore­ans only be­cause they are North Korean, which is to say that they are al­ways lim­it­ing North Korean de­fec­tors to their trauma. Even well-mean­ing movies or non­prof­its that help North Korean de­fec­tors of­ten por­tray North Kore­ans as per­pet­ual he­roes or vic­tims, con­tin­u­ally dis­play­ing their most provoca­tive sto­ries to spark sym­pa­thy and do­na­tions in our em­pa­thy-weary world. And such nar­ra­tives surely have their value: it was the hellish de­scrip­tions of tor­ture and star­va­tion in The Aquar­i­ums of Py­ongyang that first shocked me into North Korean ad­vo­cacy, and who can fail to ad­mire the courage of North Korean de­fec­tors who share their night­mar­ish pasts so that we can dream of a bet­ter fu­ture?

And yet, it was re­fresh­ing to see North Kore­ans por­trayed as more than their pain. They were also in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ters with vivid per­son­al­i­ties: clumsy dream­ers, af­fec­tion­ate men­tors, im­pul­sive care­tak­ers.

They find great en­joy­ment singing silly songs, scarf­ing down blood sausages, fry­ing veg­etable frit­ters, and laugh­ing heartily at each other’s mis­takes.

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