Why Are You Asking Me About North Korea?

When I tell people that I live in Korea, responses range from “Oh, that’s cool,” to “I love kimchi!” to “North Korea or South Korea?” More often than not, I perform my uncomfortable routine of smiling, nodding, and ignoring the fact that to many others, my home country is merely the land of K-pop idols and kimchi eaters. Recently, however, I have noticed a new question that more and more people are beginning to ask: “What do people back home think of North Korea?”

I have always considered this question a burden to answer. On one hand, I am reminded of my own ignorance when it comes to talking about current events, especially regarding international politics. What bothers me even more is the way this question is phrased. Instead of asking me what I think about North Korea, people ask me what “Koreans” think. I suddenly become the spokesperson for a country with millions of people. How am I supposed to answer?

I appreciate that people genuinely want to know how people back at home are reacting to North Korea, especially with the recent back-and-forth between Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump. These questions, however, shouldn’t be asked for the sake of gaining a generalized perspective.
As an English-speaking, first-generation American living in Seoul, my thoughts on North Korea are different from, say, those of my grandmother, who has lived in Korea her entire life and has experienced the effects of war. While we might have mentioned Kim Jong-un’s latest missile test in past conversations, these casual exchanges alone are not enough for me to know what my grandmother is really thinking, let alone the thoughts of millions of others.

Asking me to represent the opinion of my entire home country is unfair. While I am willing to share my personal experience living in Korea, I reject the assumption that my words represent a whole nation. I understand that people do not intend to make this assumption, but when you ask me these questions, these are the implications. Instead of asking me what others think, you can ask me for my personal opinion and remember that it is most definitely not interchangeable with the opinions of all other South Koreans.

The fact that there has been more talk about North Korea in American media lately does not mean that all South Koreans care or talk about North Korea any more than they have in the past. For me, the reality of the North Korean threat is not new or surprising. Seoul is 35 miles away from the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the heavily-guarded border that separates the two Koreas. North Korea is just another thing I’ve grown up with. Maybe I should care more, seeing all the recent tension, but to be honest, I am more scared of the U.S. than I am of North Korea. Then again, I am also more concerned about Upper Year than I am about either of these countries.

I feel as though we generally treat minorities — not just international students — as tokens of diversity, asking them to answer questions aimed at entire groups of people. Although this phenomenon might not be as obvious in places like Andover, where we make an effort to acknowledge intersectionality and individual experiences, it happens nonetheless. So, the next time you want to ask me about North Korea, please consider the implications of your question, and remember that I only represent one opinion.

Christina Cho is a three-year Upper from Seoul, South Korea.