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‘Look, North Koreans!’

| Thursday, February 15, 2018

I was casually swiping through the stories on my Instagram when I saw a video of a group of young ladies, each waving a small flag with perfect synchronization. A friend sitting next to me glanced over my phone and exclaimed, “Wow, that’s impressive!” It was striking to see how uniform these ladies were –– the angle of their smiles, the style of their outfits and the precision of their actions.

They were North Korean cheerleaders waving the “unification flags.”

I had seen North Koreans on social media before, but this video somehow struck me. Some people accused these cheerleaders of being cogs in a totalitarian machine, but I saw something human from the scene –– the fact that they were sitting at a hockey arena in South Korea cheering like all others (maybe with more discipline) made me realize that they could have been no different from us.

They reminded me of a movie named “Room,” which features a boy who grows up in a cramped room. He comprehends the world through the confined space and has to struggle with reconstructing his concept of the world after he escaped. I could not help but wonder how these ladies would reconcile what they were told back home with what they saw in South Korea, and how life was and would be for them after this brief visit. They were at the hockey arena like all others, yet their lives were so different from ours.

As today’s headlines are dominated by North Korea, I, like countless people, have been mainly focusing on North Korea as a regime. Indeed, politics are the major source of the problems, and we genuinely believe that the downfall of the regime would bring more hope to the life of North Koreans. Yet, this sole focus lures us into feeling detached from the individuals’ fate and becoming negligent of the negative impacts that certain iron-fisted policies might have on their lives. The heavy sanctions imposed by U.N. and many countries, for instance, could threaten North Koreans’ basic maintenance instead of empowering them. Even with China on board, sanctions have not proven to be effective in dissuading North Korea from developing nuclear weapons.

So even though Vice President Mike Pence cautioned against South Korea’s quick grip of the opportunity yielded by the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics for diplomatic opening with the North, I was glad to see the two Koreas marching under the same flag and competing as a joint women’s hockey team. The harmony seen at this Olympics might not guarantee any prospect of stability in the Korean Peninsula, but it creates an occasion for many of us to diversify our image of North Koreans and view them in a more humanitarian way. North Koreans might seem to have irreconcilable differences from us, but we are all people of circumstance.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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