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  • Eunkoo Lee

Healing 'han'

최종 수정일: 2022년 11월 3일

https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/opinion/2022/02/137_323965.html


By Casey Lartigue Jr.



Two North Korean refugee women surnamed Han will be making their debuts as public speakers this weekend at the "Healing their Hearts" conference.


At the risk of kicking hornet nests inhabited by Korean cultural and historical experts, I will connect the concept of "han" with the surnames of the speakers (Han) and the theme of "Healing their Hearts."


The concept of "han" can be summarized as a deep form of grief or resentment from some unresolved dilemma or problem. The archetypes are the deep feelings associated with the Japanese occupation of Korea and the separation of families after the Korean War.


Han Bong-hee and her siblings made a desperate escape to South Korea 21 years ago. Her father, Han Won-chae, was a former insider for the North Korean regime who became an enemy of the state. He reunited briefly with family members in China before he and his wife were repatriated to North Korea where they were executed.


His story was published posthumously in 2002 in Japanese by an activist reporter. The money from the sale of his manuscript was used to send Bong-hee and her siblings to South Korea. They settled into their lives here, but they were still grieving and living with survivor's guilt (after being captured, her father refused to give any information about family members, giving his children time to evade North Korean agents).


In 2019, Bong-hee published her father's book in Korean. Freedom Speakers International (FSI) co-founder Lee Eun-koo and I met Bong-hee in August 2018 when she wanted to start studying English. Bong-hee is now an Oriental medical doctor with her own hospital in the suburbs of Seoul. She never said she had "han." She did say that she hoped to fulfill her father's mission by sharing his story in English. It has just been published in English by FSI as "My Father's North Korea Story: Walk to Freedom."


The other Han speaking this weekend is my co-author. Han Song-mi joined FSI in 2019 hoping to improve her English. She didn't want to be identified as being from North Korea and declined to speak publicly about North Korea.


Song-mi had a tough upbringing, then was left behind when her mother escaped from North Korea in 2005. She escaped to freedom but struggled through a particularly painful time in South Korea due to her mixed feelings about her childhood and her mother. Her heart finally healed, she shared her journey in her memoir "Greenlight to Freedom," hoping it could heal the hearts of others, especially children left behind by parents.


Those two women surnamed Han have been healing their hearts, but the conference theme was inspired by a former North Korean soldier. I first met Eom Young-nam in March 2015 after he returned from living abroad in Canada for a few years.


During one of his speeches, he said: "Casey isn't a doctor, but he has healed my heart." Being able to engage in public speaking had given him many chances to think about his life and to build confidence in himself. I don't know if he was struggling with han, but he did conquer something deep inside himself. His forthcoming memoir is "The Strongest Soldier of North Korea."


Those stories may kick different hornet nests ― those inhabited by experts on North Korea and sympathizers of the regime who often complain about North Korean refugees speaking out about North Korea. Just about any North Korean refugee who speaks out can expect to be accused of lying, chasing money or telling out-of-date stories.


If the experts and sympathizers would look closer, they could see many North Korean refugees speaking out are often healing their hearts, conquering trauma or perhaps even struggling with han. If North Korean refugees were in a rush to publish books, as alleged by critics, then why have fewer than 20 out of about 34,000 done so? Why does it take the average North Korean refugee author a decade to publish after arriving in South Korea?


It took Bong-hee almost 17 years to publish her father's story in Korean (20 years in English), it has taken Song-mi 11 years to write her story and Yeong-nam 12 years to write his. Of the almost 500 North Korean refugees who have studied in FSI, only a handful have published books. That's even though many have had stories to tell.


OK, so, their level of suffering may not reach the level of the deep concept of han, but there is something there. This weekend, we will get to hear from a former North Korean soldier who says public speaking helped heal his heart and two North Korean refugee women surnamed Han ready to give their first-ever public speeches in English after overcoming pain and deep feelings of regret. If that kicks anyone's hornet nest, good.


Casey Lartigue Jr. is co-author along with Songmi Han of the forthcoming book, "Greenlight to Freedom," and co-founder along with Eunkoo Lee of Freedom Speakers International (FSI).

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