North Koreans love me--really!

I have a piece in today's Korea Times.


Surprise — North Koreans love me! By Casey Lartigue Jr.

Irish novelist Oscar Wilde once quipped, ``Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.” I can’t help but conclude that my friends, while professing love and concern for me, believe that others are unhappy whenever I ``arrive.”

When I was first leaving America to live and work in Taiwan, I was warned by friends that the locals might discriminate against me. I had a great time. Before I later left Taiwan for South Korea, I was warned by Korean friends and others in Taiwan that I might get discriminated here. Again, I had a great time.

Things came full circle when I was leaving Korea to return to America. I was warned that rather than the preferential treatment I had received as a college professor in South Korea that I might get discriminated against in my own country!

So I wasn't surprised when I told friends and colleagues that I would be attending a conference last July 10 with North Koreans in Seoul that I was warned that the attendees might be afraid of me. Instead, I was welcomed by the 35 or so North Koreans at the event sponsored by the South Korea-based Center for Free Enterprise (CFE).

Because I wasn’t a scheduled speaker and the attendees had not been warned in advance that I would be there, I suppose the North Koreans were shocked to find an American freely mingling with them during the final day of their two day conference. Surprised, yes. Fearful, no.

One of my colleagues who organized the event was more surprised than anyone when he came out of the main auditorium to see me comfortably seated on the couch with about seven North Koreans huddled around me, peppering me with questions in Korean, Chinese and broken English about myself and America. Two of the people there who could speak some English made it clear that they wanted to be friends with me, demanding that I call them soon.

I was getting along with them so well that Kim Chung-ho, president of the CFE, asked me if I would like to speak to all of the attendees after he finished his opening lecture.

I’ve never met a working microphone that I didn’t like so I accepted the invitation, encouraging the newcomers to first, not be embarrassed to make money, that money gives the freedom to do the things they want to do. Second that business people may not care about their customers, but that’s okay, because they care about ``themselves” so they will work hard for others in a market economy, and third that they had fulfilled their dream to escape North Korea, and they should enjoy their lives here or wherever they go.

At lunch, I talked with them individually and in small groups, learning that many of them wanted to learn English because it would help them get better jobs here in South Korea or to travel abroad. They had heard only bad things about America when they were growing up but had a positive view of America and Americans, the more they learned.

That gathering was a reminder that politicians and arbitrary borders get in the way of people from around the world getting to know each other, with one of the worst friendship blockers being the DMZ. Forget Barack Obama, Lee Myung-bak and Kim Jong-il. It seems that we could have resolved problems between North and South Korea that morning before lunch.

When I left a few hours later, it was clear that they were not happy to see me go, with several reminding me to contact them.