“Good morning grade 1. Today we are travelers!” Quizzical looks from surly teenage girls greet me on Monday morning, and I am fully aware that my enthusiasm is not mutual. Eager to win my class over this week, I decided to implement a geography lesson into my English Language curriculum (partly swayed by their insistence that Kangaroos came from Canada, the French spoke English and that Africa was one country).
I had downloaded Google Earth onto the classroom’s computer, and, since the ‘Naver’ search engine is mostly used, this was a new gadget for them. Enthralled by the spinning globe on the big screen, I already had the class silent and on tenterhooks to see what would happen next.
“You can go anywhere you want” I told them. “you have a free ticket”. Expecting to get requests for Disneyland, Hollywood and at best Egypt, I was mildly surprised when a few students shouted out “North Korea!” and giggled as if this request was entirely absurd. So, without hesitation I typed ‘DPRK’ (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) into the search bar. The Google satellite zoomed in onto the peninsular, and settled on the imposing DMZ (demilitarized zone, the most heavily militarized area in the world also known as the 38th parallel) which seems to divide the land mass so casually. By satellite, it doesn’t betray the armed guards, barbed fences, deep caverns or landmines, and stepping through the military demarcation line doesn’t look impossible.
Now I had my class’s attention, I asked them for the correct spelling of ‘Pyongyang’ in Romanized characters; eager to give them the lead on this lesson, and empower their learning. And so Google took my Grade 1 class right to the centre of that dark impossible city, and settled on the 22.5m high statue of Kim Il-Sung on Mansudae Hill, behind which lies the frozen body of the North Korean tyrant in the mausoleum. I was touched by their silence, and worried whether this ‘journey’ was difficult for some of them, perhaps with thoughts of family member long lost to the other side of the 38th parallel. After a few minutes of playing with the navigation bar and ‘travelling’ through the streets of the capital, I zoomed out and left the image of a tiny planet earth spinning on the screen, oblivious to the complex narrative it holds.
I was told that young people in South Korea are either largely ambivalent or vehemently dismissive to the idea of reunification or even the possibility of new lines of communication opening with the North. And, I have had very mixed responses from the few Koreans I have touched upon this subject with in tentative conversations.
However, I now know that from my student’s request to ‘visit’ the North that the dividing line still cuts deep through the identity of young people in South Korea, and their connection with the North is underestimated. My class of sixteen year olds will be the next generation of decision makers, and they should be given every opportunity to express themselves and their thoughts and opinions given a voice. For it is this generation who are vital to the liberation and freedom of North Koreans, teenagers and children alike, who continue to suffer and are silenced by dictatorship.