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Drawing a Blank on News From Korea

FOR some mysterious reason, people seem to think I know what goes on in Korea. Friends expect insightful observations on Korean politics, and family members always assume I've heard the latest news about relatives in Seoul. The truth is, I haven't visited Korea for more than 10 years, so I know only what I read in the newspapers. These days, that's not much because with two small children to run after, I don't have time to do more than glance at a paper, usually while it's spread on the table beneath mo untains of Play-Doh. And while I may have relatives in Seoul, they never tell me anything. "You didn't know that Tae Il's wife had a baby girl?" my mother once asked in disbelief. Of course not. I hadn't even known that my cousin was married.

"That's great," I said. "When was she born?"

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"A year or two ago," said my mother.

My relatives assure me they aren't intentionally keeping me ignorant of family matters, but they do tend to be reticent about political events. My father, who gives speeches about his hopes for the reconciliation of the two Koreas, just doesn't discuss these things at home.

"Did you have any trouble getting around Seoul with all the riots?" I asked after he returned from a trip during a period of student unrest. "No," he informed me.

Other relatives are closemouthed out of necessity, rather than temperament. One of my uncles, an American working for the State Department, is now stationed in Seoul. Although he probably has plenty of insider knowledge of the political scene there, he can't talk much about it because his job is classified. A few other relatives have had sensitive positions in the Korean government.

BUT most of my family in Seoul exercise discretion after years of living in a country that tolerates little dissent. Another uncle, a retired theology professor and former dean at a large university in Seoul, spent much of his career being watched by the Korean CIA, the KCIA. Although he never openly criticized the government, he often spoke at the university chapel about democracy, human rights, and Christian ethics, which led to popularity among his students, as well as interrogation by the KCIA, freq uent house arrests, and eventual dismissal from the university. On the rare occasions when we meet, he never mentions Korean politics, and I don't bring it up.

Of course, some members of my family never mention politics because it simply isn't a priority. A few years ago, my sister Helen was studying at a university in Seoul during another period of student unrest. For weeks, my family waited to hear from her, although we were fairly sure she would be able to avoid the major melees. When we finally got a letter from our reporter on the scene, we ploughed through a detailed list of shopping bargains in the Itaewon section of Seoul before we found this descripti on of the rioting: "The only thing I don't like about school is the demonstrations because the tear gas is gross."

One could argue that Helen was being cautious in her letter, since mail to and from Korea was sometimes censored. When I was studying in Seoul during the summer of 1973, some of the letters I received had obviously been opened, and a few from a friend reporting on Watergate never arrived. But I know Helen, and student riots just wouldn't hold her attention as long as there were leather-goods merchants in Itaewon to haggle with.

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I'm hoping I won't always have to rely on my relatives for news from Seoul. Perhaps someday I'll be able to read a Korean newspaper that's something more than a public relations vehicle for the government.

But for now, I have all but given up hope of finding out what goes on in Seoul, even though my sister Esther is currently studying there. So far, I've received one letter, which was essentially a list of things she could buy for me. In addition to the fake designer bags, she mentioned brass tigers, which "make a nice gift, particularly the trio holding an American flag, Korean flag, and tennis racquet!"

Maybe I expect too much. After all, how important are the reunification talks between the Koreas when there are brass tigers to be snatched up? And maybe it's just quiet in Seoul right now. Or is it? Since nobody will tell me what's happening there, I guess I'll have to start reading the papers again - the American papers.

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