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'Kim,' My North Korean Friend
Political differences were no obstacle to our boyhood friendship
Pierre Joo (pierre_joo)     Print Article 
  Published 2006-08-14 17:57 (KST)   
I never knew his full name, as it sounded too complicated and impossible to pronounce for French teenagers of my Paris suburb's middle school. So for them, as well as for me, he was just known as "Kim," the boy from Korea. But not the Korea I knew: Kim was the son of a North Korean diplomat.

I was introduced to Kim through one of my classmates for whom finding two Koreans in his school was as intriguing and exciting as discovering an unopened box of candies in the street. Indeed, a very rare case at a time when the only Koreans living in France were a few diplomats and businessmen.

For the first few minutes of our encounter, my natural reaction was to assume Kim was from South Korea, as I had never met anyone from the other side of the 38th parallel. I therefore felt a little embarrassed when I heard Kim's answer to my classmate's question on which of the two Koreas he came from: that classmate had asked me the same question a few seconds earlier and my answer had been a triumphant "South, of course!," as if there were just one valuable Korea...

The first moments of mutual uneasiness were quickly forgotten. We were too young for Kim to be a commie in my eyes, as well as for myself to be an American puppet in Kim's eyes. Thousands of miles away from the divided Korean peninsula, we both just felt very Korean; although he was much more Korean than I was -- in the middle of a massively French crowd.

Soon, I really got to like Kim. Although he had one annoying habit: Kim would excel in everything he did: he spoke French fluently after just one year in France; he got straight As; especially in math, thus making a huge impression on his teachers; last but not least, he was a Taekwondo black belt and would impress the entire school during lunch breaks.

When asked why he was so talented, his answer would be: "all Koreans are like that," which left the much less talented author of this story with two options: either ask Kim to stop saying that, or suddenly stress my French identity. The truth is I wasn't annoyed at all, rather pleased and proud that the image of Korea, this small piece of land stuck between China and Japan, was conveyed with such talent.

It would be too idealistic and not accurate to claim that because of our young age and some exceptional circumstances, inter-Korean affairs did not at all stand in the way of our relationship. Kim after all, was the son of a diplomat.

Yet, we had managed to figure out a modus vivendi that made it possible for us to become good friends, while keeping some barriers that unconsciously helped both of us feel more distant and consequently more comfortable with inter-Korean issues: we preferred to speak French even when no one else was around, I never asked Kim's full name, and Kim never took the initiative to tell me, we never had contacts with each other's parents and never went to each other's house, and we never talked about politics, which due to our age, was not our major concern anyway.

I lost track of Kim three years after our first encounter, during my high school period. After not seeing him around for a while, I had asked a friend on his whereabouts and was told he had left France. His father must have received a posting in another country, I assumed.

Kim and I did not formally say goodbye. Kim may not have had the time, or he may have just decided not to meet me before leaving. In any case, I do not blame him for that because had he announced to me he was leaving for another country, what was there to say to each other? We knew it would be very difficult to keep in touch, let alone meet again, unless a very unlikely reunification occurred.

For three years, we had managed to spend good times together, and become genuine friends, while avoiding some touchy subjects that we knew, were beyond our control, and could only bring trouble. Saying goodbye to each other would have made us venture into too many of these subjects.

I kept thinking a lot about Kim until long after he left, wondering about his fate when North Korea's situation plummeted due to the collapse of the communist bloc and during the natural disasters the country endured.

I've also thought a lot about Kim recently, when discussing the prospects of reunification with young South Koreans, realizing that some of them have come to regard North Korea mainly as a burden that may put their current settled life into jeopardy. A concern that has become bigger than the wish for reunification in the minds of some young Koreans. Maybe these people's opinion would be different if they had the opportunity to become friends with someone from the other side of the DMZ.

Just like "Kim" and I during those three years.

- Kim, My North Korean Friend by Pierre Joo 

©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Pierre Joo

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