Socks Saving Lives

You live where? This is the response I repeatedly get after telling people I live in Sincheorwon, South Korea.  About 18 months ago, I still remember plugging the word, Cheorwon, into google map search one day before coming here.  I found it alarmingly close to the border and I was not thrilled on my teaching placement location.  I had landed an apartment about a kilometer from a military base, in front of an army testing zone and just miles away from the DMZ, the most heavily fortified border in the world.  It was all new, very new. The booming bombs sounding every hour.  The traffic jams on the way to school caused by not cars, but instead army tanks.  Walking by the hundreds of soldiers performing emergency exercises which involved pointing their guns seemingly in my direction, appearing ready to attack, on my way home from school.  The pack of helicopters that ritually fly overhead while taking out my trash.  Sharing beers with soldiers who want to practice their English at the local bar.  To this day, the blasting explosions, the tank transit and the brigade of youthful armed forces are a part of my daily life and seem somewhat normal, as I have acclimated to my surroundings and grown accustomed to the rural, country girl, army invaded, lifestyle.  I have grown fondly of this camouflaged covered town along with the people who have helped contribute to making this foreign land a place I can call home, hence the reason I extended my contract for two years.

Just on the other side of that line, is the one of the worlds most mysterious, unjust, cruel, communist country, where hunger, tormenting, concentration camps, arbitrary and lengthy imprisonment, forced labor, public executions, prohibitions and severe restrictions on
freedom of speech, the press, movement, assembly, religion, and privacy is part of daily life.  How could this be, only miles away? With interest in becoming more involved in the community,  learn more about where I am living and spending my life, and gain more knowledge about the severe situation that the North Korean people live in day to day, I joined a group of young activists who meet up in Seoul the last Saturday of every month to spread awareness in a special kind of way.

Over 25,000 North Korean refugees now live in South Korea, all because they received information about the “outside world,” leaving them with a thread of hope for their existence on this planet.  The things we take for granted everyday are the things that North Koreans lack (and so many other parts of the world.)  But, who would ever think that socks could save lives?  Just one pair of socks= 10,000 North Korean Won = 10 kg of corn = 30 days of food.  We gathered in a parking lot near the DMZ just 1 hour north of Seoul and participated in the 6th balloon launch.  Each box is filled with 200 socks with “letters of hope” stapled on each pair and attached to mile high hydrogen filled balloons.  The box is held together with a plastic cord with a timer that unlocks allowing the socks to drop out  just after 3 hours, which is the approximated time it takes to fly far enough over the border to reach the inhabitants.  Socks also are of course a basic necessity for the wintertime if they are not traded or sold for food.

On our way to the Odusan Unification Observatory in Paju, Mr. Lee, a North Korean defector and creator of the project, shared with us his story translated by Cessilia Park.  Once, a lost, hopeless refugee of the North, was standing in front of us, sharing his story of his unfathomably dangerous and terrifying 3 month escape through China, Myanmar, Thailand, then successfully to South Korea.  His mother, reluctant to proceed across Tuman River in Myanmar, was piggybacked across by a friend and now living with Mr. Lee in Seoul.  With him he carried enough opium for him and his family to swallow if caught, because inevitably dying together would surpass the amount of pain that would be inflicted when separated and sent to prison camps or most likely, executed by the government.

We learned more about life in North Korea from Mr. Lee at lunch in Seoul post launch.  Information that is not found on the internet or on Wikipedia.  Information that is most likely not displayed on the news or in documentaries.  North Korean children being told untrue stories about the evils that exist within the United States, learning of how we torture children by forcing nails through their heads, to potentially make the seriousness of their torturing seem less immoral.  And how public hangings are a family event in daily life.  He informed us that punishment for a “crime” in North Korea results in not just the victim, but to three generations of family as well, with ambition to instill fear and obedience among their people.  And also, he reiterated that food aid is distributed into homes when media is present, but just hours later taken from homes and given to military and government officials, leaving starving women, children and families.

Leah and I joined the leaders of the newly founded NGO, North Korea Peace, along with Mr. Lee, for round three at a bar and chatted over bottle of potent North Korean liquor.  After partaking in such an emotionally overwhelming experience, my mind has been burdened by the plethora of need in this unbalanced, unethical, corrupt world.  This place has been my home for almost 2 years and the people of Korea stay true to my heart, regardless of which side they were more fortunate to end up on.  They are still the same people, only one half separated by unsought and unjustifiable circumstances, caught in the wrong world, indecently struggling and suffering in a dark, fearful place.  Mr. Lee has dedicated his life to saving his “brothers and sisters” first through the act of the balloon launches, which the media will hopefully spread all over the world. We have the knowledge, but what are the next steps to take?  What we can do right now is support Mr. Lee and his project, encourage more expats to take part in this event each month and most importantly continue to raise international awareness and pray for change.

North Korea Peace Facebook page:

A Reuter’s news clip taken at Launch #6 : Click here to watch this video 

Donate. Participate. Communicate.

“Dear friend, the world has not forgotten the current hardship of our fellow brothers and sisters in North Korea. We ask that you stay alive until reunification. We love you.”


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. James @ Fly, Icarus, Fly
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 00:16:27

    A novel way of spreading relief to people who truly seem to need it!


  2. jeannettenew
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 11:33:02

    just lovely. I am struggling with the issues faced by North Korea but that’s not helpful. I was suspicious too. However you and Leah have humbled me and I feel ashamed. The right thing to do is to help. That’s it. People are the only things that can help and we have to start somewhere. I will start this weekend by selling some bow headbands on the streets of Gangneung.


  3. Donna
    May 14, 2012 @ 21:21:35

    wow. I am speechless. We all know it is bad but had no idea how bad. We forget how fortunate we are. God Bless You!


  4. LexoKat
    May 21, 2012 @ 16:29:39

    I want to go to Korea! After studying so much about it, I fell in love with that country and Vietnam as well! One day..


  5. JL
    Jul 31, 2012 @ 08:00:02

    Read Barbara Demick’s book Nothing to Envy. There is also a documentary coming out featuring Mr. Lee called Unfortunate Brother:


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