Strittmatter experiences North Korean tensions firsthand

Posted April 17, 2013 at 11:18 am

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PHOTO: This is a photo Strittmatter took of a South Korean soldier guarding his post near the DMZ. She’s been in South Korea for eight months now, and will return in August of this year.

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PHOTO: Here, Kate Strittmatter works with two of her fourth grade students. She is employed through the Korean government agency “English Program in Korea.” Strittmatter lives about 9 miles south of the DMZ (Korean Demilitarized Zone). (Photos submitted)


By Kim Brooks, Express Editor

With U.S. and national media reports of tension in North Korea facilitated by leader Kim Jong-Un, one Monticello native is not far from the border. Kate Strittmatter, 23, daughter of Nick and Anne Strittmatter, has been in South Korea for eight months now, and will leave in August. She’s there on a teaching contract through a Korean government agency called EPIK (English Program in Korea).

“They hire native English-speaking teachers for schools throughout the country,” explained Strittmatter.

Strittmatter explained the process she went through in securing a teaching position in South Korea: “In August 2012, I arrived in South Korea for a nine-day orientation along with 500 other English teachers. Throughout the orientation, we were only told which province we would be teaching in. For me, it was Gangwon-do, the mountainous province in the northeast part of the country. Information such as school name, grade levels and location within the province was withheld until the final day of orientation.”

She said she wanted to come to South Korea for several reasons. “I wanted to experience a new culture, something completely different from what I’ve ever encountered. Asia also fascinates me.”

Strittmatter teaches English for grades kindergarten through sixth, focusing on writing, phonics and learning from a textbook.

She lives in an apartment complex with 10 other English teachers from nearby schools. They are from all over the world: Ireland, the UK, Canada, South Africa and Australia. Strittmatter said South Korea is actually more modern than what people in the U.S. might think.

“My town looks like it could be placed in the middle of any large American city,” she said.

Strittmatter lives in Hwacheon in the county of Gangwon-do, which is about 9 miles south of the DMZ (the demilitarized zone). Her school is just a few miles north of Hwacheon.

So close to the border, Strittmatter said, “The South Koreans are seemingly unintimidated by the North Korean nuclear threats. The residents carry on with their daily lives despite the escalation of threats from the North. South Koreans are so unfazed; Kim Jong-Un is not even a topic of discussion.”

Living with three other American teachers, Strittmatter said they do feel safe being so close to the DMZ.

“I have never felt unsafe living 9 miles from the DMZ.”

She said on April 9, North Korea urged all foreigners living in South Korea to leave. “My friends and I laughed about this, joking that we couldn’t leave until payday on April 25.” Strittmatter said the U.S. State Department also issued a release, stating that those living or traveling in the South “need not take these special precautions.”

So are her parents concerned at all for her safety? She said she’s been contacting them more frequently now, so they don’t get too anxious.

“I’m sure my parents are a little worried, naturally. My mom suggested that I pack an emergency bag with clothes, important documents and a bottle of water.”

Not being able to watch American news, Strittmatter said she does read articles online. She hears from family and friends, saying all they see and hear in the news are reports on the serious nature of the situation in North Korea.

“When I speak with my friends in the U.S., they are surprised that I am so calm about the situation,” Strittmatter stated.

Where she lives, there is a military base nearby. She sees South Korean soldiers standing guard and performing military drills in her schoolyard.

“One time when I arrived at school, a soldier was on the roof with a machine gun peering down,” Strittmatter explained. “Lately, I have noticed an increased military presence. Tanks frequently pass through. In fact, my school day has been delayed several times when the school bus was stuck behind tanks slowly maneuvering down the road.”

Still, she carries on, increasing herself in the South Korean culture. She said one big difference she’s found in the culture is the food. She said they serve Kimchi (a Korean vegetable dish) and rice with every meal, even breakfast. When going to a restaurant, Strittmatter said they sit cross-legged on the floor. Unlike customs in the U.S. where people request separate dinner checks with a large party, in Korea, the oldest person usually pays for the group’s entire meal.

The language barrier has been a struggle for Strittmatter, but she takes Korean language classes four times a week.

“English is not as widely spoken as one would expect. Many Koreans that I’ve encountered are extremely shy about speaking English. Most Koreans over the age of 40 only know a few simple English phrases,” Strittmatter explained of her experiences.

She does have some free time, which she takes advantage of by traveling and seeing the sights and various cities. She’s even been skiing in Yongpyong, the host city of the 2018 Winter Olympics!

Noting differences in the school system compared to the schools in the U.S., Strittmatter said their academic year is set up differently than here. She said their first semester starts in March and ends in July. Their summer break ends in late August, the start of the second semester. Students have the option of taking classes that are offered during the winter and summer breaks.

“Korean students study a lot!” noted Strittmatter. “All too often my elementary-aged students tell me they were studying math or English until 2 a.m. This is not uncommon, even for young Korean students. The pressure amongst Korean students is incredible! High school students spend nearly every waking minute devoted to their studies.”

Strittmatter graduated from Monticello High School in 2008.

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PHOTO: Strittmatter teaches at a school near the South and North Korean border. Here, you can see several military vehicles parked on her school’s playground.