Day 1A:  Tangun

I think it makes sense to start every day with a little myth.  I find that knowing the story that begins a place helps you understand where it is now.

In Korea, there are few creation myths that start from the beginning, the very beginning. In a few oral traditions, a primal chaos exists until, unexpectedly, a crack appears, separating earth from sky. But these myths, those that survive, are not the colorful intricate histories of the Theogeny or the Enuma Elish. Korea’s most treasured myth is that of its own creation from an existing earth and the humans already living upon it. This is the myth of Tangun. 

     The story goes that a Heavenly Prince, Hwangun looked down at earth and desired to possess it and rule over mankind. His father, the Ruler of Heaven, Hwanin knew that his son would bring happiness to human beings and, looking at the earth, chose Mount Taebak as a suitable place for his son to go to earth. Hwangun arrives beneath a sandalwood tree where he creates a holy city. He brings with him three heavenly seals, somewhat mysterious in nature, and 3000 loyal subjects from heaven, which are possibly spirits. In addition, Hwangun brought three ministers, the Earl of Wind, the Master of Rain, and the Master of Clouds. Different accounts of the myth tell that Hwangun either taught or took charge of 360 areas of responsibility, like agriculture and medicine. The story moves now to a bear and a tiger, both desiring to become human beings. Set the task of shunning sunlight and eating only the food given to them by Hwangun (some mugwort and twenty cloves of garlic), the bear succeeds in earning Hwangun’s approval while the tiger fails to fast, fleeing into the forest. The bear becomes a beautiful woman, Ungyo (bear woman) and becomes the wife of Hwangun. Their son is Tangun, the King of Sandalwood. Tangun becomes the first king of Korea, calling his country choson and ruling for 1500 years. After this time he retreats to Taebak-san to become a mountain god.

     Though the myth of Tangun begins with an already existing earth, it still bears some resemblance to the later portions of other creation myths. Like Marduk in the Enuma Elish, Hwangun descends to earth to create a paragon of cities, the City of God. Like the Enuma Elish and the Theogeny the parentage of the heroic king Tangun is very important as with Marduk in Zeus. In other ways, the myth is very different, having a scholarly air in contrast to the violence and melodrama of the other myths. Unlike the Enuma Elish and the Theogeny, the myth of Tangun portrays divine forces as a civilizing influence, bringing law and culture to humanity. The heavenly prince neither kills nor overthrows anyone to gain his power over Korea. Instead he brings down loyal subjects and ministers to establish a working, exacting government and teaches humanity 360 different useful ways of working. Korea is not created violently, but with a comforting feeling of calm efficiency.

–  Jessica Colberg 

Sidenote:  everyone here is a lot shorter than me.  And smaller.  It is often distracting and makes all photos of me appear as if I am a giant.  Pardon that and the look on my face.  They are related.

Wol-San Liem met us at the airport the previous night and installed us in our hotel in Seoul.  Because our organizer, Juyeon, had been detained in Laguardia, Wol-San became our handler of sorts and from then on would help us navigate the schedule.  Exhausted, we all hit the bed pretty hard that night though sleep was hard to come by.  Jet lag had thoroughly confused our internal clocks and I sadly woke up at 4 am, body ready to go after only 4 hours sleep.

 Wol-san met us in the lobby that morning. The KCTU office was just down the street from our hotel so we walked up for our first meeting:  an introduction and our first meeting about the schedule for our days.  We went around the room and talked about why we were there.  Wol-san laughed as we went around telling our individual stories, remarking that when asked to talk about themselves her union members would often just say their leader asked them to come.  When Americans are asked, we tell our whole life stories!  She assured us it was a good thing and asked us to continue.

Our schedule that morning had changed in a couple of ways.  Instead of morning meeting with our National People’s Action hosts, we were to meet with Representative Jae Kwon Shim at South Korea’s National Assembly, who is chairman of the foreign affairs and unification committee to talk about our opposition to deployment of THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea. Admittedly, I was a little nervous.  Jet lag made me feel like I was swimming through very warm water that morning.  I wasn’t sure I would have the capacity to deal with a government official in unfamiliar country but… that’s the job.  Due to a lack of time, we moved on to that meeting immediately following our introduction.

We arrived at a large structure referred to as the National Assembly building.  After a briefing from our NPA comrades we developed what would be our first set of talking points together.  

I learned quickly that I would need to think differently about the way I communicated.  I am in love with story.  It can be said that I have developed an entire career around weaving narrative, fable, and occasionally tall tales of small men into everything that I do.  This has often meant that I rely heavily on metaphors to make the point.  When being translated, it is important to remember that not all metaphor translates well.  My reliance on story would need to be shortened, paced, and more direct.  I have adjusted accordingly on this trip and I think in the future, some of this may remain.

Our meeting time arrived and we entered a grand office in the National Assembly building to spend some time with Rep. Shim.  Thankfully the chairs were big enough for my large frame, so I could focus on something other than how massive I felt for a moment.  When it was my turn to speak, I dropped into my notes briefly and allowed for the metaphor I knew:

I need you to imagine a burning house.  Workers in the US who make weapons of war have told us that they are often left with the choice of supporting these destructive systems or poverty.  Their elected officials are made to fund these projects because if they don’t, they’ll be faced with the same choice.  A cycle is then perpetuated by unwilling participants who often feel that they have been locked in a burning house, unable to escape.  THAAD then represents a reinvestment in war that we cannot afford.

After we each finished, Rep.  Shim laid out that the problem he sees with THAAD is that it is bad technology that will do harm to the communities it is placed in in ways that are currently unknown because there isn’t data.   He wants to put it to a vote and ask why they are in such a hurry to put this into place.  As a side note, he pointed out that he shares the predicament workers in the United States find themselves in.  When he and others tried to shut down nuclear power plants, it was the workers that defended them because they needed the jobs.  They too would rather do something else… but something else wasn’t available.

We left with more information than what we arrived with.  The representative was warm and we moved on to our next meeting.

Originally I was going to write every day as one post but I get so little time to myself that I’m going to break them up.  I’ll still submit every day.  

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