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My Trip to North Korea (Part 10)

March 29, 2013

Before I continue, I would like to announce that Iowa Sky: A Memoir by Donald D. Gibson is now available for your order.

Iowa sky: A Memoir
by Donald D. Gibson

This book is the memoir of Donald D. Gibson, who grew up a son of tenant farmers in Iowa and went on to become a scholar in German history, a teacher, political activist, and a senior government official, his career culminating as acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

He and his wife Dai Sil, a woman born in northern Korea, had been working on and off on a memoir (intended to be a joint memoir) for several years when Don died, in January 2009. Dai Sil then undertook to annotate and compile Don’s personal remembrances and chose photos to accompany them. A book was born: Iowa Sky: A Memoir. 

Don was a depression-era farm boy who found his way into the world of ideas and politics. He participated in the Civil Rights movement, organized statewide and national anti–Vietnam War protests, and became involved in electoral politics. Then, as a tireless and staunch advocate of critical thinking, he took up the arms in the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s.

Battered by ill health and other life catastrophes, Don found strength and courage with Dai Sil, his soul mate. In Iowa Sky you will meet a down-to-earth, sky-loving intellectual and activist—what Koreans would call jingook (rich soup stock).

How to order Iowa Sky: visit Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com

Please tell your friends, colleagues, and family members about this genuine and quirky memoir by an American original.

* * * * *

As the monk led us to the back of the temple, on the way, I asked him: “Most of us in our group are Christians. You are a Buddhist. In your view, are there any common grounds between the two religions?” “Well, I do not know about Christianity well enough to answer you intelligently. But I know this. Christianity was imported from the West. Buddhism had been in Korea much longer, and it is more in the blood stream of Koreans.

He stopped for a while, immersed in thought, before he continued.

“In any case, I respect other people’s religion. I respect Christianity and Christians. I know that Jesus was an inspiring leader and his teachings could benefit mankind. I would like to expect the same from them toward Buddhism.” No more to ask him. His answer was clear.

Then I decided to give myself the luxury of smelling flowers, touching the persimmons still hanging on the tree, and looking at the water mill going around under a clear autumn sky in the back yard of the many-centuries-old Buddhist temple. Away from a group–even from that monk–I wanted to be alone with Don. My heart was filled with peace, at once tranquil and content. I hung onto each moment.

As we walked back to the front of the temple where we had entered and were getting ready to leave, I stopped and asked the monk, “Is there a room in this temple where a passing stranger like me could stay?” “No, there isn’t, but if you wish to come, I will find a room for you close by. Parting, he lowered his head slightly in the gesture of bidding farewell, “Mother (aumenim), I believe we were supposed to meet. So we met but we will meet again. If it is your heart’s desire to spend some time here, you must come back.” I agreed with him in my heart. I hope to see him again.

As our van passed through the winding road toward the top of the mountain, I sat looking out of the window, drunk with Sanshin (mountain spirit). Guwol-san was the mountain where the divine sovereign, Dan Gun (the mythic king of Korea) was to have retired as Sanshin. 

Our van climbed to the top of the mountain in no time at all. It was not very high. I learned later that the highest peak of the mountain is 954 meters above sea level, but the height of its beauty and grandeur soared high into the autumn sky. Some leaves were just turning color. Oh, how I wished I could stay there even for a few days, to enjoy what must be a spectacular festival of color, soon to emerge within a week or so.

Standing at the top of the mountain, I noticed that our car drove on a curved cement road all the way to the top. The road was not a part of nature’s bounty. It was man-made and was pretty awesome. I asked who built the road. “The People’s Army,” answered my guide proudly. “When there was a severe famine, people lay around, energy all but gone and starved. It was then that our great President Kim Il-sung proposed to the army that they engage in constructing bridges and roads. ‘We can either sit around defeated or overcome hardship with work,’ said our President. This was one of those projects. Soldiers carried cement on their A frames and built this road.” I felt sweat and blood of those soldiers on the curvy cement road and bowed my head toward them for their labor.

The people living in the northern half of a small peninsula called Korea, demonized and isolated by the most powerful country on earth, the USA, seemed to survive with purity in their spirits and steel will to go on living. Of course, this phenomenon is primarily presented by 90% of the media as blind obedience, forced by the dictators. But what little contact I had with people in North Korea did seem to substantiate my own view.

The next day I saw groups of little children at an amusement park in Pyong-yang. Many of those faces were changing into the face of that monk in my mind’s eye. Only they might not be wearing a monk’s garment—they raised their hands to tell me what they wanted to be: “a medical doctor, a scientist, a nurse.” “Not father and mother?” I asked. “That too,” and they giggled. I felt hope.

 

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