All You Need Is Love? Shin Eun-mi’s Interview with OhMyNews.com

By | January 12, 2015 | No Comments

Until recently, Shin Eun-mi was simply a 54-year-old Korean-American ajumma who, thanks to her American citizenship, was able to travel to North Korea with her husband on three occasions in 2011 and 2012.

But last week the South Korean Ministry of Justice ruled that Shin must be deported for making comments construed as pro-North Korean during a nationwide tour for her “Unification Talk Show” [통일 토크콘서트], which she undertook with Hwang Sun (황선, seen with Shin in the video above at a talk in Daegu), a former deputy spokesperson for the now-defunct Democratic Labor Party (민주노동당; DLP). No doubt, partly in light of her nationality, Shin was not indicted for her alleged violations of South Korea’s controversial National Security Law (국가보안법; NSL); rather, she was deported (강제출국). On Saturday afternoon she met with what could politely be described as an energetic and politically opinionated welcoming party at the airport in Los Angeles. She is banned from returning to South Korea for five years.

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A Korean-American Ajumma Goes to North Korea. | Image: Four-leaf Clover Publishing

Interestingly, the Daegu-born Shin had previously documented her travels in an unremarkable series of travelogues at the left-leaning site for “citizen journalists,” OhMyNews.com. She then published a book (see left) entitled, “A Korean-American Ajumma Goes to North Korea” [재미동포 아줌마 북한에 가다] which sat quietly in South Korean book stores for some time without engendering much controversy. According to reports, it was even included on a Ministry of Culture recommended-reading list (from which it has since been removed).

Something changed, however, when Shin went on the speaking circuit. While no censure-begging or seriously critical remarks appear to have been made, the people with whom she traveled may have caught the eye of those in the Ministry of Justice. Hwang Sun was convicted of violating the NSL in 1999 and imprisoned, and now seems likely to fall foul of it once again. She has published five books, two of them allegedly in North Korea. Her former party, the DLP, was one of those that merged to form the now-illegal United Progressive Party (통합지보당) of the infamous Lee Seok-ki. Finally, sharing a stage with Lim Soo-kyung (임수경; AKA: the “Flower of Unification”), the fiery progressive who, in a state of modest intoxication, berated a defector outside a Seoul restaurant as a “turncoat,” was always going to attract the attention of anyone itching to find new ways to use the term “pro-North” (종북; jongbuk)—many conservative-leaning reports duly referred to the talk shows as “jongbuk talk concerts.”

While there is certainly no proof that Shin became the subject of a police investigation because of her personal affiliations alone, it is a plausible enough hypothesis. But rather than speculate on the ulterior motives behind her deportation, it is worth reading something that Shin actually said. Besides her book, she has 58 entries logged at her OhMyNews profile (most of which appear to belong to her North Korea travelogue series). Below, however, is not a translation of any of her travelogue entries, but a 2012 Q&A (일문일답) with OhMyNews’ reporter Kim Ji-hyeon about her experiences traveling in North Korea, her travelogue, and what her travels in North Korea taught her about North Koreans.

The interview mainly reveals Shin’s naively optimistic perspective on North-South relations and life in North Korea. It also suggests that she may be justified in feeling that the South Korean government has somehow betrayed her; in other words, she hardly seems like much of a threat to national security.

The translation has been truncated. Introductory text and opening questions are omitted.

Kim Ji-hyeon, “North Korea: Ironically It Was the Safest Country. [e-Citizen Journalist] Writer of North Korea Travelogue, Citizen Journalist Shin Eun-mi” [“북한, 역설적이게도 가장 안전한 나라였어요 [! e시민기자] 북한 여행  신은 시민기자], OhMyNews, June 27, 2012.

– What made you determined to write a travelogue about your trips to North Korea?

Actually, I hadn’t thought about writing a travelogue before I left [for North Korea]. I’ve been on lots of trips ever since I was young. Of all those trips, the one I was least enthusiastic about was the one to North Korea last October [in 2011]. However, after I got back from North Korea I reevaluated my life journey, and in so-doing something made an impression on me. I wanted to share those experiences and feelings, and also the precious pictures that I took during the trip. [Watch the video above to see the pictures and hear Shin talk about them.] And thus I came to write a travelogue.

As I travelled through North Korea, I kept wondering: Do our compatriots (동포) in North Korea have the same feelings as us even though we’ve lived apart for such a long time, and would we be able to live together in one [national] community? It did not take very long for me to come to the conclusion that it would indeed be possible. I want to share these experiences with other people through my travelogue.

– According to previous articles of yours, you have been to North Korea three times. Elaborate on the places you have visited.

I went to mostly Pyongyang, also Nampo, Wonsan, Mt. Geumgang, Kaesong, Sariwon, Samjiyon (Mt. Baekdu), Mt. Myohyang, Najin [Rajin], Seonbong, etc. So, that means Pyongan-do, Gangwon-do, Hwanghae-do, Hamkyeong-do. Last April I stayed in only Pyongyang for about 10 days, and in May I toured all of North Korea for three weeks, particularly the Special Economic Zone at Najin-Seonbong. Looking around the market [장마당, jangmadang] there, it was good to see the unfiltered lives of ordinary North Koreans. In the future, I will share this with you through my travelogue.

– Was there any place or moment during your travels that affected you most deeply?

The moments I remember most were when I came into close contact with normal North Korean citizens and was able to share our national feeling [민족애 같은 정서를 나눌 수 있었던 때] with them through conversation. I was deeply affected by the jangmadang that I mentioned earlier, the big and small parks located here and there, and also the people I came across unexpectedly on my way.

– Looking at your articles, your love for a certain North Korean tour guide called Seol Kyeong-ri can be felt. It will probably come up in future articles, but tell us about what happened between the two of you.

Seol Kyeong-ri is bright and intelligent. More than anything else, she’s a deep thinker and has a big heart. She also takes a judicious approach to her work. Nothing special happened really, but we did talk about our own lives and what troubled us. She treated me like a friend. At times, she kindly gave me insightful advice. We only met for a short while, but it feels like we were together for a long time. Through Seol Kyung-ri, I discovered that life in North Korea is no different to life in any other part of the world.

– Aside from the content of the articles themselves, the eye is drawn to your pictures filled with images of North Korea today. Where any restraints imposed on what you could and could not photograph?

During the first meeting we received several warnings [about taking photographs and other activities]. For example, when we wanted to take pictures with people, go to places that weren’t on the travel itinerary, take walks in our free time, or when we wanted to explore outside more generally, we were told we had to get permission beforehand. We were told that photo restrictions were in place because people were shy about taking photographs with tourists. In cases when photographs were desired, the guides would kindly ask the people and encourage them to comply, stating, “These are our guests, so please don’t refuse. Take a photograph with them.” However, usually North Koreans gladly gave their consent to photographs without any prompting. In fact, our North Korean compatriots are very timid regardless of gender. They are also very kind. The people I met during my travels were also very humorous.

I heard that the reason they [the guides] don’t allow tourists to go off on their own is concern over unpleasant things happening to them in places they aren’t used to. It could also be to prevent things from happening if tourists wander off by themselves that could be used to generate false propaganda [악선전] about the North Korean system. However, I truly believe that they are in place for our safety. The tour guides seemed concerned about our health and wellbeing every day.

When we were somewhat used to a tour area we were allowed to travel freely around the hotel and surrounds, and to take pictures. At first, when I took pictures I was very careful and asked each time if it was okay. But after a while I realized I was being excessively cautious.

The tour guide said at times photographs people took were problematic because they could be used to circulate negative press, but in cases where this wasn’t an issue we were free to take as many photographs as we wanted. People think North Korea is the most dangerous country in the world (for political reasons); however, as ironic as it may sound, we thought that it was the safest the country in the world.

– Your articles have garnered a lot of comments. Some of them are negative and very critical. Isn’t it hard for you?

To be honest, at times I have despaired because my sincerity was distorted and derided by politics and ideology. I merely wanted to selflessly share the love for humanity that I felt [while in North Korea]. Contrary to my intentions, my sincerity negatively affected readers, which made me wonder if the meaning of sharing a text has disappeared [글을 나누는 의미가 없어진 게 아닌가 싶었어요]. I sometimes thought that it would be better to stop publishing articles.

However, I took heart from comments left by readers with the same heart as mine, and those of people who were grateful for the indirect experiences, and so I continued writing. I thought that if one or two people could relate to my experiences and share their thoughts with me, it would bring our nation closer to becoming one through love.

– Is there anything you’d like to say to the readers of OhMyNews?

Like it or not, we cannot deny the fact that North Koreans are our people (우리 민족) and we are brothers and sisters (한 형제). The way I see it, our affinity [towards North Koreans] has been replaced by a love-hate relationship. Instead of suffering over “my wounds” alone we should realize that these are “our wounds” and comfort and heal each other. I should understand my own brother or sister, because if I don’t, who will?

I am just a simple housewife and mother who knows little of politics, economics, ideology, or philosophy. I don’t want readers to look for the ulterior motives or the philosophy or ideology in my travelogue. Just see me as someone who is used to a selfish way of life breaking down her barriers, little by little. I want us to share the fact that love starts from our desire to share with others.

When my husband and I travelled through North Korea, we received a heartfelt welcome from our North Korean compatriots. Of course our tour guides were so welcoming, but so were the citizens we met in various places. Travelogue entries to come will continue with anecdotes related to this. Occasionally I read on the internet about defectors in South Korea suffering from discrimination; I hope that warm brotherly and sisterly love towards defectors will flower in South Korea, too, in a way similar to that treatment we received from our North Korean compatriots [in North Korea].

Source: Kim Ji-hyeon,“North Korea: Ironically It Was the Safest Country. [e-Citizen Journalist] Writer of North Korea Travelogue, Citizen Journalist Shin Eun-mi” [“북한, 역설적이게도 가장 안전한 나라였어요” [찜! e시민기자] 북한 여행기 쓰는 신은미 시민기자], OhMyNews, June 27, 2012. Translation by Steven Denney with Jin Seongbak.