As the world watches and wonders what, if anything, is going to transpire as a result of North Korea’s recent threats against South Korea and the US, we sit here in Seoul going about life as usual. Indeed if it weren’t for the international news coverage, I could have easily remained blissfully unaware of what our neighbor to the north has been up to these past few weeks.
Perhaps because they are used to it, or perhaps because stopping everything is simply not an option, South Koreans continue on with life. I suspect it’s a combination of the two. If there is a great deal of fear about the threats, it is not apparent. There seems to be more of a sense of annoyance that we have to play out this charade once again. It is incredibly frustrating that North Korea can set a whole region of the world on edge with these oft-repeated promises of obliteration.
Of course, any discomfort we’re experiencing over this situation is nothing compared to the daily life of the average North Korean. Despite the limited and controlled information that comes from the state, a picture has emerged of the reality of life for many North Koreans and it is not good. Reports of arbitrary imprisonments, labor camps, starvation, systematic brainwashing, public executions, control through fear and intimidation, and other human rights abuses are rampant.
As a mother, the most heartbreaking stories I’ve heard are about the kotjebis, or street kids, of North Korea. The word kotjebi translates as “wandering swallows” or “flowering swallows”. There are no exact numbers but it is estimated that there are about 200,000 of these children, foraging for food and wandering the streets, often in packs, orphaned either by the death or imprisonment of their parents.
I’ve heard that even acknowledging their existence in state media is prohibited and that the only attempts the government has made to “help” these children is to set up detention centers for them. North Korea is not the only country in the world to have homeless children, but the circumstances for these children does seem particularly difficult. They are, in effect, invisible.
Interestingly, in the context of a united Korea, which is what most South Koreans hope to see one day, the invisibility of the kotjebi may be an asset. Most of what we know about North Korea comes from defectors who have survived to tell their tales. Some former kotjebi who have made it to South Korea describe an existence which is absolutely degrading and miserable, but also outside of the control of the state. Since they are unacknowledged and highly mobile, they cannot be easily controlled, and perhaps most importantly, they can be carriers of information that documented people simply cannot by virtue of the risk involved.
If the North Korean regime is ever to fall from within, these street children, free of any sense of loyalty to a state that has utterly and completely failed them, could be an integral part of whatever uprising unfolds.
Knowing this does not make it any easier to imagine their pain and suffering. To be treated as disposable is among the worst of traumas that a human can endure. When I think about what a future united Korea might look like, I feel completely overwhelmed by all the work that will need to be done to address the injustices the North Korean people have endured. South Korea will have an entire nation of trauma survivors who will need years and years of help to integrate into the modern world.
The swallow is said to symbolize many things, among them freedom and hope. It is these two things that I choose to focus on as I think of these wandering swallows. My tender mother heart weeps with and for them, but I have faith that the goodness of humanity will eventually find a way to crumble the North Korean regime and that these precious children, along with their fellow countrymen and women, will be acknowledged, cared for, hopeful, and free.
This is an original post written for World moms Blog by Ms. V. from Korea.
What are your thoughts on the N. Korean situation?
Great post, thank you for sharing a perspective from South Korea, and bringing attention to the kotjebis.
“My tender mother heart weeps with and for them,” – yes, it really does!
I good friend of mine has recently left South Africa to teach English in a South Korean Primary School. Obviously, when you’re close to somebody in a particular area deemed to be “a danger zone” news stories which you might not have really paid attention to in the past, suddenly become extremely relevant to your life.
I feel your post has done the same for the kotjebis – knowing they exist, and what they’re going through, suddenly makes the “North Korea Saga” much more relevant to all our “tender mother hearts”!
I pray that the North Korean Regime will crumble sooner rather than later and that no more innocent lives will be lost. My love to you all!
Wow. Interesting post, Ms. V.
“There are no exact numbers but it is estimated that there are about 200,000 of these children, foraging for food and wandering the streets, often in packs, orphaned either by the death or imprisonment of their parents.” This absolutely breaks my heart.
I’m so glad you wrote this.
Thank you for this very profound post. My family’s hearts are quite tied to Korea – several of my cousins are adopted from South Korea and we have learned as a family to celebrate their heritage. Thank you for sharing about those children – it gives me much to ponder – and breaks my heart just a bit.
Thanks for visiting us! I didn’t know that about your family and Korea. Interesting!
Great post! Thanks so much writing. I have heard from others about the South Koreans’ attitudes towards the North’s sabre rattling, but I have not heard about the kotjebi. Thanks for helping to raise awareness about the issue.
Thanks for that post. I was stunned to learn that there are 200,000 of these children. I feel like I know so little about North Korea. Your post gives a tragic insight into what is happening behind the flag-waving crowds.