Sunday, June 27, 2021

This Is What North Korea Looks Like

I just got back from a half-day trip somewhere I never imagined I would set foot: the DMZ (demilitarized zone) between North and South Korea. As a Korean American, I definitely knew about the DMZ growing up: that's where the two sides who had an armistice but never truly ended the Korean War would meet and sometimes seem like they made progress and sometimes seem like they took a few steps back. There have also been a number of scary security incidents there, including those that resulted in lives lost on each side of the demarcation line. Thankfully, my group was in good hands visiting under the auspices of the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC).

First we stopped at a visitor center in Camp Bonifas with small, museum-style curated displays. There were a lot of details I didn't know. For example, the region around the Joint Security Area (JSA) separating North and South is called Panmunjom (판문점). The 2018 inter-Korean summit between Republic of Korea (ROK) President Moon Jae-in and Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un resulted in what is known as the Panmunjom Declaration. What I didn't know is that the name Panmunjom comes from the name of the well-known tavern in the surrounding village.

Camp Bonifas is named after one of two U.S. soldiers killed in what is known as the Axe Murder Incident of 1976. U.S. Army Captain Arthur Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett were trimming some trees in the DMZ when a group of DPRK soldiers led by Senior Lieutenant Pak Chul came up to them, observed them for a while, demanded they stop, and then bludgeoned the victims to death with their own axes. The UN Command chose to respond with Operation Paul Bunyan, a demonstration of overwhelming military force to cut down the tree without any additional escalation or loss of life. The photo above is the site where the Axe Murder Incident and Operation Paul Bunyan took place.

Then we went up a hill to get a good vantage point to see North Korea across the border. We could see the infamous Kijong-dong (기정동) in the distance. North Koreans refer to it as Peace Village, but we call it Propaganda Village because several of the buildings are only facades and with binoculars it's obvious that even some of the windows are painted on to give the impression more people live there. Current best estimates are that several hundred people do live in Kijong-dong, but it's much fewer than the DPRK government attempts to present.

After that, we got to check out the site of a famous 2017 defection from the North of a DPRK soldier. The New York Times has a great video explaining the footage from that incident, but it was amazing to stand exactly where the chase happened and see the bullet holes from the incident up close. What the video doesn't say but we learned from our guide is that the defector survived being shot five times and is still living in South Korea today. In the same area, we walked past a building called Freedom House that was designed to host reunification meetings of families separated by the division of North and South. Unfortunately, it has never realized its original purpose due to the DPRK's fear that North Korean families will defect if they are allowed so close to the demarcation line.

One of the coolest stops of the trip was the actual room where negotiations between the two sides happen. We were even allowed to cross the halfway mark and technically set foot in North Korean territory! In normal times, there would have been DPRK soldiers there, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic they have not been as visible. I heard that on the rare occasions they do come out for meetings these days they are wearing head-to-toe orange hazmat suits. It will likely be a while before things are back to normal - at least, as normal as they ever get on the DMZ.

We also got to see the famous view of the large building on the DPRK side that always shows up in news stories about inter-Korean conflict or negotiations. I had the first photo of this post taken where President Trump crossed over to North Korean territory during his official visit in 2019. A short walk away, we saw the blue bridge, also known as the Bridge of No Return. They built an extra section of the bridge in 2018 so that the ROK and DPRK leaders would have somewhere to share tea and cigarettes, but since then that portion of the bridge has begun sinking into the swampy terrain below.

I learned so much on this tour and I would consider a visit to the DMZ a must for anyone visiting South Korea who is able to arrange it in their schedule. This is such an important part of not only world history but world politics and military relationships today, and I'm grateful I had the opportunity to see it up close for the first time. And of course I hope that someday the hopes and goals of so many generations of Koreans and allies and friends can be realized and the peninsula can experience peace and reconciliation once again.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Happy Juneteenth!

Juneteenth is a federal holiday! It's so exciting for me and so many to learn more about this crucial part of American history. For many people from many parts of the United States, we are learning about this for the first time. For those readers who may not know: Juneteenth celebrates the day when a Union military officer arrived in Galveston, Texas and told enslaved African Americans they were free. That day was June 19, 1865, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation making them legally free was issued. Many slaveholders withheld that information from enslaved people and continued to persecute and abuse them before and after their freedom became law.

There were so many details I learned recently while hearing and reviewing the stories that shaped our country. Did you know that President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves, only those in areas that were rebelling against the Union? Did you know that the other party in the infamous Dred Scott Supreme Court case was a slaveholding white woman? Did you know enslaved Black women were forced to wean their children early so white children could have wet nurses longer? Did you know people have been celebrating Juneteenth in the United States since 1866? Did you know red food and strawberry soda are part of Juneteenth because red food symbolizes blood and strawberry drinks were previously reserved for slave owners?

Like many Americans, I've been doing a lot of watching and reading and listening over the past year, and I'm shocked how much I learned about U.S. history that was never taught in my schools. Here are a few resources I can personally recommend if you'd like somewhere to start for celebrating Juneteenth:

Juneteenth is a holiday for all Americans, not just Black Americans or descendants of slaves. This is a fantastic opportunity to learn about our history and reaffirm our commitment to do better by actively seeking out justice where we can. If you're learning about Juneteenth for the first time, let's go on this journey together. How are you celebrating Juneteenth?

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Trying to Be a Better Ally at Work

Something that I really appreciate about the latest push for diversity and inclusion at my workplace (and at workplaces around the United States) is the greater emphasis on what allies (i.e., people who are not systemically excluded or marginalized) can do to support those who are being held back by an unjust system. I've been on both ends of this in just my first few years in the Foreign Service: being in a position where I could advocate for someone else and where I needed someone else to advocate for me. Things like privilege, allyship, and marginalization are not simple and nobody is fully privileged or fully marginalized; people are complex beings. But it's important for those of us who have access to resources and power in some ways to make sure we're using that access to lift others up, too.

There are so many ways to be a better ally at work I couldn't possibly list them all. One thing I do recommend to everyone who wants to do better supporting diversity and inclusion in the workplace is to sign up for the free 5 Ally Actions weekly newsletter. It's a quick read that gives you five things to know or do to help boost others around you. And unlike other resources out there, it's accessible to laypeople (e.g., it doesn't require academic or other expertise on issues) and it's focused on the realities of modern work.

It was actually in one of these newsletters that I learned this blog isn't as inclusive as I want it to be. I often write posts where the word "here" links to the outside resource, but those can make websites more difficult to navigate for people who are blind or use screen readers for other reasons. UC Berkeley has a quick explainer on this subject, but in summary screen readers may catch the link without the necessary context when the link text says something like "Click Here". This is a longstanding habit of mine, but I'm going to make a concerted effort to try and change it so that my blog is more accessible to visually impaired readers.

There are countless small actions we can take to reduce barriers to information and opportunity that we might never know about if we don't experience it ourselves and don't seek out the experiences and expertise of others. So in addition to reading about these issues, I want to recommend all readers to volunteer their time or money to advance inclusivity where they work or study or live, too. In the Department of State, Secretary Blinken has made this issue a priority and most posts and bureaus now have Diversity & Inclusion Councils. These initiatives would benefit from broader participation, especially from allies.

Regardless of where you work, there is certainly something you can do to give back to your colleagues and build up better institutions. There are infinite ways to measure success, but I think one of them should be that you left projects, offices, programs, people, language, and everything else you had influence over a little more diverse, inclusive, and equitable than you found it.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

A Day at the Bee--I Mean, Honey Farm

When the Embassy Community Liaison Office (CLO) announced they were arranging a trip to a local honey farm, I immediately signed up! I love honey, but I'd never been to a honey farm before. When I tried convincing my friend N to join me though, she replied that "honey farm" was just a euphemism for "bee farm" and that she would not be attending. She was right, because this trip is not for anyone who is scared of bees or insects!

The honey farm we went to is called 최은명 자연꿀 치유체험농장 (translation: "Choi Eun-myeong Natural Honey Healing Experience Farm") and is considered a "city" honey farm because the bees are kept on the roof of the building instead of out in a field. It's a family farm that is in the process of being passed down to the third generation - how cool is that? As Seoul expands and Korea becomes more urban, these types of agribusinesses are increasing. It seems to work well, and it gives city dwellers more opportunities to experience nature and agriculture. We got a quick briefing on how the farm works and learned about the importance of bees to the environment. The owners also talked about the natural health benefits of honey and we all tested our stress levels using a finger pulse device. I was shocked to see my stress levels were so low and healthy, but maybe that's because I just had so much fun at the farm.

We had to suit up to go to the beekeeping area, and although the outfits weren't particularly stylish or flattering they did the job and protected us. Once appropriately attired, we followed the owners upstairs to the roof. They waved around mugwort smoke to calm the bees down and then opened up one of the boxes so we could see the bee colony inside. They had 100 boxes of 10,000-50,000 bees each, and it was amazing to see! I learned all sorts of new things about bees and saw a real queen bee for the first time.

The worker bees live about 45 days, but the queen can live for 4-5 years. They're all born from the same type of egg, but there is only one queen per colony. She lays 2,000-3,000 eggs per day, so I guess that's what keeps the numbers up given the low lifespans of her workers. I also learned that male honey bees don't have stingers, so I even got to hold one in my hand. It wasn't scary at all since I knew he couldn't sting me.

Our honey farm tour also included a few DIY projects. We worked together in groups to make all-natural shampoo, which involved a surprising number of interesting ingredients (like silkworm dust!) and some arm strength given an extended period of time stirring the mixture as it thickened. Next, I and a few others made beeswax candles. I fell in love with these adorable candles especially because they were made to look like three different versions of kimbap (김밥, the Korean version of sushi): regular kimbap, "nude" kimbap (with the rice on the outside), and egg kimbap (with a layer of egg on the outside).

We couldn't leave the honey farm without tasting some honey, so we got to try rice cakes with two types of honey. I've never combined rice cakes with honey before, but what a delicious combo! Interestingly, the two honey samples came from the same bees, but they tasted totally different. The lighter one was produced during acacia season when those flowers dominated the bees' diet, while the darker one was from a different season when the bees fed on a mix of wildflowers instead. My favorite was the acacia honey, but both were amazing and packed full of unique flavor that set them apart from the honey sitting in my pantry at home.

Bees are such an important part of our ecosystem, but I (like most consumers) rarely think about them. A honey farm trip is a great way to learn more about these amazing creatures and to enjoy the wonderful products they make possible. (The whole experience also reminded me of a novel I read years ago and loved dearly called The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. I cannot recommend that book highly enough.) If you're interested in learning more about beekeeping, check out the Barnyard Bees Youtube channel or visit your local honey farm. Hopefully your experience is as sweet as mine was!