Swimming Upstream Improves Your Vision!

Guest Column in the magazine: The Argus (Hanguk University of Foreign Studies)

Tim Peters

Founder / director of Helping Hands Korea_Catacombs

OK, I will admit that I did not double-check with a marine biologist whether the above assertion holds true for fish or not, but my ‘theory’ has far more to do with homo sapiens, and the life choices of the university student subset of this species in particular!

First, let me share a little bit of what has occupied me over the past 19 years in Korea. Like many other foreigners on this peninsula, I have done stints as an English teacher, editor, speechwriter, proofreader lecturer, and a few other pursuits, too. All well and good. However, one ‘extracurricular activity’ unexpectedly grew into a passion for me: assisting North Koreans in crisis. When my family returned to Korea in 1996, news of North Korea’s crippling famine was just beginning to leak out of the Secret State through isolated news reports and accounts provided by border crossers. So troubling at the time were detailed reports of dire food shortages, widespread malnutrition, stunted grown of a generation of children and even some startling accounts of cannibalism, that I became convinced that my priorities could not be maintained ‘business as usual.’ In short, my values as a human being, much less as a Christian, were being challenged. As a first step, our family of seven came to the decision to dedicate out of our monthly family budget enough to purchase a ton of corn in China to be sent into North Korea. This monthly pledge became the seed money for our fledgling Ton-a-Month Club, which others slowly began to join. We felt like pioneers. I was learning to swim upstream and as I did, my eyes opened to other ‘inconvenient truths.’

Almost as disturbing to me as news of the humanitarian disaster unfolding above the 38th Parallel was the apathy I witnessed both globally and here on the southern half of this peninsula. Yes, notable


30 www.theargus.org   Voice of Wisdom

and noble exceptions stood out, such
as the UN World Food Program
(WFP), Caritas, Korean Red Cross as
well as food aid initiatives from the
public and private sectors in South
Korea. Even so, I could not help but
be dumbfounded by life’s unnerving
normalcy for millions of Seoulites,
who were swimming downstream
and seemingly oblivious to fellow
Koreans starving 50 kilometers
to the north! I began to accept
invitations to speak at universities,
service clubs, high schools, and
churches. These opportunities to
raise awareness were surely steps
in the right direction, but I had a gnawing feeling that it wasn’t enough. I felt compelled to join fellow activists who organized street demonstrations of protest in front of Chinese embassies in Seoul, Tokyo, Washington D.C., as well as European capitals when North Korean refugees were forcibly repatriated to North Korea to torture, imprisonment and even forced abortions of pregnant female refugees. Such vocal protests were not always popular. Fighting for social justice often pushes against the prevailing social current, may involve discomfort and often requires a new swim stroke!

Over time it became clear that food aid and protests would not be enough. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans were fleeing famine and the repressive Kim regime in the North yet their reception in China was anything but hospitable! Refugees needed a place of safety, refreshment, encouragement and logistical assistance. One by one, activists began to ‘swim upstream’ to help desperate refugees make their way to freedom along the underground railroad, reminiscent of the human chain of volunteers who helped American slaves to freedom in the mid-19th Century in the US. Thousands of North Korean defectors have found freedom via hazardous journeys with assistance through third countries, such as Mongolia, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and even Far East Russia. The price for swimming upstream in this way was high: a number of activists were detained and served prison time for the ‘crime’(in the eyes of Beijing) of providing humanitarian assistance to the refugees.

At times, swimming upstream not only improves the swimmer’s own sensitivity for the needs of others and social justice, but can also provide enhanced vision for many others. When NGOs like ours first started helping the refugees, our principal motivations were humanitarian rescue and unconditional mercy for the persecuted. Over time our non- profit community began to collect the testimonies of North Korean defectors, including human rights abuses they endured in North Korea and China. Some accounts were later used in the landmark UN

Commission of Inquiry’s detailed report on the human rights in North Korea.

Examples are legion throughout history of those who have made the lonely decision to swim upstream and they can be found in every culture and society. Those who reach the stature of a Ghandi, William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln or Nelson Mandela will naturally be very few. Yet I am convinced that each and every one of us can strive to hear the whisper of conscience and charity in our own heart, seek to recognize the difference between temporal and truly enduring values, search for and find the courage to swim upstream against the current of narcissistic living. We may not always succeed, and that is to be expected. At the same time, many have discovered that swimming upstream is so exhilarating and liberating that it has become a lifelong habit!

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  • –  The NGO website is www.helpinghandskorea.org
  • –  He can be reached at tapkorea@gmail.com
  • –  Tim hosts a weekly Catacombs forum on ‘all things

    North Korea’, Tues. 7~9 P.M., in DL Gallery: turn left out of Samgakji Station’s Exit 2, and walk through a small passageway about 40 meters to the gallery on the right (located between a cafe and fish restaurant).