By: Peter M. Beck, International Crisis Group

Meet an American Imperialist
Weekly Chosun
28 April 2007

When I visit North Korea, I usually introduce myself by saying, “How are you? I’m an American imperialist bastard (Me-gook Chin-nom). I do this to try to show North Koreans the ridiculousness of their propaganda and to see just what kind of a reaction I will get. I tend to elicit a laugh or a look of surprise, but sometimes a North Korean will counter, “No, you’re just an American imperialist.”

Next month marks 20 years since I made my first trip to Korea. Unlike most Americans of the time, I was not carrying a gun or a Bible. I only had a backpack. I had just finished my second year at U.C. Berkeley and I was traveling the world to find a country to study. I became fascinated by South Korea’s political and economic transformation. Seeing fellow students in the streets struggling for democracy made a deep impression on me. However, it was the Korean people that really won me over. Getting lost among the skyscrapers gave me an opportunity to meet people. Students wanted to tell me how much they hated Chun Doo-hwan; an army officer took me to his mother’s house in the countryside.

Back at school, I was able to study not only Korea’s language, literature and history, but also the tragedy of modern Korean history with Prof. Lee Young-hee of Hanyang University, who taught for a semester at Berkeley in 1987. He also taught me the joys (and perils) of drinking while hiking. It was not until years later that I could appreciate that my hiking partners were some of Korea’s leading dissident scholars and writers.

Until my wife unceremoniously threw it away, my most cherished keepsake was an empty tear gas canister from the countless demonstrations I had witnessed. I feel very much a part of the 386 generation. Moreover, by American standards, I am an unabashed and unreconstructed liberal. I was opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq long before it became fashionable. George W. Bush has done more to harm America’s national interest than any other president (although not just liberals are saying that anymore).

However, I am not sure where to place myself in the Korean political spectrum. Reading the liberal press gave me the distinct impression that the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement was a far bigger threat to South Korea than North Korea. I also find most liberals’ silence on North Korea’s horrendous human rights situation to be atrocious. The liberal press has virtually turned its back on the plight of the three North Korean orphans trapped in Laos.

When I returned to Seoul almost three years ago to open an office for a European conflict-prevention NGO, one of my personal goals was to stay until I could read the newspaper without using a dictionary. Sadly, my five-year-old daughter is now teaching me Korean words like “light green” (why are colors so difficult!) and “It’s all messed up!” On the other hand, I am learning words that the average Korean does not know, like saeteomin (settler). Before giving a lecture at a university, I asked students to write down what they thought the word meant. Only a handful knew that it was the politically correct word for defector created by the Unification Ministry a couple of years ago. One student wrote, “Is it a newly-discovered vitamin?”

Actually, I never cease to be amazed by the average South Korean’s indifference when it comes to North Korea. Most people really don’t seem to care if North Koreans are starving. Far more people were worried about making the round of 16 in the World Cup than whether Pyongyang conducted a nuclear test.

In the coming months, I will try to share with you my views on Korea and the world. You may not always agree with me. Some of my views will offend the left and the right alike. For example, who cares about Dok-do? They are just a couple of silly rocks! However, know that what I have to say comes from the heart. I still have trouble appreciating han (rancor), but I have great jeong (affection) for Korea.

No matter how bad the yellow dust or traffic congestion may get, it is the kindness of Korean people that keeps me from wanting to leave Korea. It used to annoy me to constantly hear “Wow, you’re tall!” (I am 198 cm.), but I have learned to challenge the proverb by adding “but I’m not bland.” Before I arrived here, I worried that Koreans might not be so accepting of a mixed race child, from her nursery school classmates to strangers in our park, the warmth we have been shown has been nothing short of amazing.

I have no idea where I will be or what I will be doing in two years, much less 20, but so far, it has been a wonderful ride. I appreciate the opportunity to share part of my journey with you. As I like to say when I have just had a good discussion with a friend, “To be continued…”