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Essay

Citizen diplomacy

By Kip A. Cates

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Several years ago, I attended an international conference on English education. The first morning, at the hotel restaurant, I met three participants. Something about them was unusual. They seemed out of place.

“Where are you from?” I asked. “North Korea!” they replied. They were English teachers from Pyongyang and had gotten special permission to leave their country. It was their first time overseas.

The youngest, Mr. Lee, was a linguist. The oldest, Mr. Pak, was a Shakespeare expert. The leader, Mr. Kim, was a good English speaker. We got along well and soon became friends.

Later, I met an American colleague and told him there were North Koreans at my hotel. He was surprised! We knew some South Koreans at the conference. “This is a great chance for diplomacy,” we thought. “Let’s try some peacemaking!”

Our plan was to meet in a Korean restaurant and have dinner together. I brought the North Koreans. My friend brought the South Koreans.

At first, we worried whether things would go well. Then, as now, North and South Korea were officially at war. Both groups were taught that the other is “the enemy.” There were even laws against meeting together.

Amazingly, the dinner was a great success and everyone became friends! How did this happen? There were four factors.

The first factor was our shared identity. We were all English teachers. We belonged to the same profession. We were colleagues, despite our different nationalities.

The second factor was curiosity. The South Koreans were curious about North Korea. The North Koreans were curious about South Korea. This mutual curiosity drove the entire evening.

The third factor was shared names. Mr. Kim was a North Korean. Two South Koreans were also named Kim. Immediately, they began to talk. “What’s your background? Which Kim clan do you belong to?” This provided an instant connection!

The fourth factor was alcohol. All Koreans like to drink! As we slowly got drunk, the barriers of politics, ideology and prejudice fell away.

Our gathering finished with music. Ms. Lee from South Korea stood up and sang a song about Mount Paektu, sacred for both North and South. Mr. Pak from North Korea sang a song about unification, the dream of all Koreans. They were great singers! We finished by singing an emotional version of Arirang.

Our moment of peacemaking ended all too quickly. Two days later, the conference finished and we headed home. I never saw my North Korean colleagues again.

The world needs more citizen diplomacy to counter the voices of nationalism, prejudice, fear and distrust. Behind the scary media images of North Korea are ordinary people ― housewives, farmers, students, teachers. All they want is a life of peace. Just like us.

Note: All names in this essay are pseudonyms.

市民外交

筆者は数年前、英語教育の国際会議で北朝鮮から来た参加者と知り合った。アメリカ人の友人と、韓国からの参加者も誘い、彼らとの夕食会を開催すると…。(文中の登場人物は全て仮名です)

The Japan Times ST: May 26, 2017

The Japan Times ST 読者アンケート

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