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Welcome to Around the World, Here at Home. I’m Jennifer Davidson. Today, we’re looking at an East Asian country with which the United States has a long, complicated relationship. South Korea was established as a democratic government in the southern half of the Korean Peninsula after World War II. From 1950 to 1953, US troops helped defend South Korea from the invading north.
A 1953 armistice drew a line across the peninsula at the 38th parallel. Today, even though North and South Korea are not engaged in direct fighting, the two are still technically at war. The United States maintains a strong military presence in the south. South Korea is a high-tech, industrialized economy, while North Korea, a communist-style monarchy, remains a largely closed economy and receives food aid from other countries.
Dr. Tae Wan Park was born ten years after Korea split. His father was governor of one of South Korea’s provinces. He teaches mathematics at Missouri State University-West Plains.
“In my father’s generation, they had experience about North Korea and South Korea united, or [from] long, long ago when Japan invaded us and took control. When I was in elementary school, the teacher taught that North Koreans are kind of evil, with red faces and, you know, have horns…and I believed that,” Park said.
When he went to university, however, he learned more about his neighbors—and his relatives—to the north.
Growing up, the law prohibited North and South Koreans from communicating or visiting.
“So, my grandmother was in North Korea, and my one aunt—my father’s youngest sister,” Park said. But after 2000, relations finally began to warm: the two countries went to the United Nations, and new leadership in South Korea made visitation a priority.
Park says his father met with his sister then, after decades. She didn’t appear to be disenchanted with her North Korean government or system, he said. “It’s hard to know North Korea,” Park said. Information in North Korea, and travel to and from the country, are still tightly restricted.
Park said Americans appear to hold several stereotypes about both North and South Korea; older Americans, he said, don’t know that South Korea is a highly developed economy. Younger Americans assume that it’s way more developed and high tech than it is. Somewhere in the middle, Park said, is the answer.
He also had a neighbor in Michigan, a Korean War veteran, who didn’t realize that North and South Korea are still technically at war, he said.
Also, the rise in stardom of Korean pop-star Psi, famous for his international hit “Gangham Style,” leads to some funny questions, Park said. “Everybody thinks Koreans look like Psi,” he said.
In West Plains, Park and his wife are raising a daughter, who is 10. He says he wants to instill in her some aspects of Korean culture, while making sure she embraces some key parts of American culture, too.
“We want our daughter to keep the respect for old people,” Park said. “In Korea, even when we talk [to an elder], we don’t look at the eyes. Because [looking at] the eyes is kind of rude.”
At the same time, he says he wants his daughter to speak her mind – and show her opinions.
“I believe my life in South Korea, I believed [I should] always respect my elders…so I followed my father’s talking, my mother’s talking, my teacher’s talking. It was hard to [speak] my opinion,” Park said.
“I want to keep the one thing good for the Korean style, and also keep the completely opposite stuff in American style, too,” he says, laughing.
Dr. Park never met his grandmother. She passed away on the north side of the 38th parallel.
This has been Around the World, Here at Home. I’m Jennifer Davidson.