People often ask me what I would do if I was provided with unlimited time and resources to devote to North Korea work. Would I send more Bibles by balloon? Add another shortwave radio broadcast? Expand Underground University?
My answer clearly disappoints them. I tell them that if I had unlimited resources I would research and write a proper obituary for each of the North Korean defectors who have died in South Korea.
Dr. Foley and I were visiting the apartment of a North Korean defector couple with our staff and Underground University interns one night. As we waited for the elevator, some of the staff were chatting lightly. But beyond their soft talking I thought I could detect the very faint, hoarse sound of a man’s voice coming from the adjacent darkened stairwell. When I poked my head into the stairwell, I could make out the shape of an old man sprawled out on the stairway. It was clear that he had tripped and fallen quite some time before our arrival and was unable to get up.
My Korean speaking is shamefully limited, so I simply regarded the man through the darkness with an expression of curiosity and concern, looking for some kind of signal from him. In return, he remained a motionless sprawl and regarded me with a look of serene defeat. We lingered in our mutual regard for a few moments, unmoving. Then, simultaneously, I reached out to lift him up from under his shoulder and he spread his arms out for me vaguely, like a helpless infant. I motioned for our only other male team member, a North Korean defector UU intern, to brace the man on the other side.
We three walked to the elevator together, wordlessly, clumsily, the fallen man leaning into me heavily. When we entered the elevator he pressed the button for his floor, and the three of us stared straight ahead in silence, as if transfixed by the floor numbers ticking by on the LED display. When the bell dinged, we stepped out and he nodded in the direction of his apartment down the hall.
We reached his apartment door, whereupon he promptly willed himself up straight on his own two feet, worked the keypad entry to open the lock, shuffled into the apartment, and closed the door quietly behind him, embarrassed, without looking back at us at all.
There’s a scene in Death of a Salesman where Linda Loman says of her husband,
I don’t say he’s a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.