It was in 2011 that Katherine Yungmee Kim ’93 first considered writing a book about the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that, for 60 years, has separated the Korean Peninsula into two bitterly divided nations.
But the challenge of coming up with funds to travel to her ancestral homeland meant the idea was little more than a fleeting notion.
Until now. Thanks to a Time-Out Grant from Vassar, Kim will spend 10 days in July traveling the 155-mile-long DMZ and interviewing South Koreans about the role of the boundary in their everyday lives. From her visit, Kim plans to write a graphic novel—or book with comic art—about the region President Clinton once called “the scariest place on Earth.”
“This Time-Out Grant is changing my life,” says Kim, communications editor for Koreatown Youth & Community Center in Los Angeles. “It’s allowing me to delve into my personal history and my political history at a time in my life when I feel intellectually prepared.”
The grant program was established more than 20 years ago by an anonymous alumna to allow Vassar alumnae/i over 40 the chance to “make a career change or take time out to pursue a strongly desired endeavor.” The $45,000 award is designed to fund projects over the course of a year, or longer.
For Kim, that endeavor was obvious. Members of her family, like so many others on the peninsula, were sealed off from one another as the DMZ created an impenetrable divide between the Republic of Korea in the south and the communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north.
Kim says her as yet unnamed graphic novel will seek to capture the history and pathos of a place that has plenty of both. Melding words with drawn images in a lyrical approach—as opposed to the straightforward history offered in textbooks—is expected to give unique resonance to the subject material, Kim says.
“A 10-year-old can read it and have a reaction,” she adds. “It’s more digestible. It’s more accessible.”
“This will be an interspersed history lesson on the creation of the DMZ and the relationship between the north and the south but also including within that my family’s own history with the region and the emotions that go along with it. It’s a tragedy. There are 10 million families that are separated.”
Kim was born in New Jersey to parents who left East Asia after the Korean War. Her maternal grandmother, who will turn 100 this year, is from Pyongyang. She will be featured in the graphic novel as someone who has lived history and lost relatives behind the DMZ.
After graduating from Vassar with an English degree, Kim earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Columbia University. From 1994-96, she lived in Seoul, South Korea, where she was a correspondent for the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review and a reporter for the Yonhap News Agency.
It was then that she had a chance to first visit the Odu Mountain Unification Observatory, within the DMZ, where weeping families gathered at an altar designed to venerate relatives who remain in the north. The experience made no small imprint on Kim, the mother of three children.
“That was very heavy—the seriousness and the tension,” she says. “It binds your identities because you share the same historical experience.”
With the Time-Out Grant, Kim hopes to visit the village of Daeseong-dong, which lies within the DMZ. “I can’t imagine what it’s like to live there,” she says. “I think it must be very routine for them. It will be interesting to talk to people who were born in a town that’s in the middle of a war zone. It’s so foreign to us as Americans.”
Kim says she will draw on her Vassar experience while writing her book. She credits Elizabeth “Betty” Daniels ’41, former Vassar English professor and college historian, with teaching her research techniques. “Being able to work with a historian made me comfortable in this environment,” says Kim, who learned how to use archival materials during a seminar taught by Daniels. Kim hopes her graphic novel will be read by anyone with an interest in Asian affairs.
“I want readers to leave with a real understanding of what the DMZ means to the Korean people and the Korean diaspora,” Kim says. “People are fascinated with North Korea because of the way the media portrays it—the irrational acts and the saber-rattling. There’s a lot of curiosity about this, but it sort of gets lampooned. You think about military goose-stepping and grand spectacle displays. I want to be able to convey the human side to the political situation there, while also informing readers of the actual history behind it, without having to read a historical text on the Korean War."
Kim won’t travel without a little trepidation, especially since North Korea recently nullified the 1953 ceasefire that effectively ended the Korean War. She plans to keep a low profile.
“I’m a little nervous about going,” she says. “I have a family and I would never want to create some huge State Department event where [diplomat] Bill Richardson is going to have to fly over to release me.”
Nonetheless, “I feel so lucky,” Kim says of securing a Time-Out Grant. “I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity.”
Kim portrait, Jay Kim; family photo courtesy of the subject.