A sign of the times: Kim’s story

During the recent pandemic, the importance of human connection became even more clear to the world, and was the catalyst for Kim’s drive to support the deaf community

Over the years, I’ve had many ups and downs, and have struggled with my mental health – experiencing depression, anxiety and, most recently, post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But through it all, learning a new skill and using that to help others has given me purpose, and helped me pull through.

In late 2016, I started my degree in psychology at Royal Holloway University of London. I have always been fascinated by psychology, and how the brain works – but my other passion is British Sign Language (BSL). I started learning BSL nine years ago by watching YouTube videos, and teaching myself in my free time. Once I was confident with signing the alphabet, I realised how much I enjoyed it, and was keen to do more. An online search helped me to find British-Sign.co.uk, which had a flexible level one course that was ideal for me. I loved learning new signs and increasing my BSL vocabulary – even though the online course wasn’t perfect – and after a few months, I got my certificate in level one BSL! It was amazing and I was so proud that I knew the basics of BSL and could communicate, even just a little, with the deaf community.

What I’ve learnt over the years is that this language helps so many other groups of people too, as well as those who are deaf – including individuals who are on the autism spectrum, who have Downs Syndrome, or painful chronic illnesses – because sign language allows them to communicate without the strain of using their voice. And I’ve personally found it useful as well.

Back in 2010, I was diagnosed with bronchiectasis. Since then, I have been hospitalised numerous times with other respiratory infections.

Kim with her dad

When my chest is bad, I feel weak and am in a lot of pain. So I keep communication to a minimum, as I get breathless and can’t talk due to the pain. However, being able to use sign language has helped me tremendously with communicating when I am severely ill.

In 2017, I was approached to teach level one BSL at Royal Holloway. It was a scary concept to teach 25 students, and I thought I couldn’t do it. But after my first lesson ended, I fell in love with teaching the language of sign.

But in December 2018, my dad suddenly died. I stopped learning BSL, and became very detached. I was in my third year of university, which I struggled with.

My dissertation, which my dad helped me with, was a research piece looking at the deaf community’s mental health compared to those with hearing. It made me open my eyes to the adversity that deaf people endure every day, and the impact this has on their mental health. It sparked something within me; I wanted to do more, and to raise awareness surrounding the deaf community. Even though my dad didn’t get to read my dissertation, or see me graduate, he knew that I would always go above and beyond to accomplish whatever I set my mind to.

Being able to use sign language has helped me tremendously with communicating when I am severely ill

After graduating in 2019, I, much like every graduate, was scared and anxious about what to do next. I looked into studying a Health Psychology MSc at the University of Surrey, as I always wanted to get a Masters. However, halfway through the course, my PTSD and mental health were really suffering, and in January 2020, I made the decision to stop and return to part-time work.

Then one Sunday, I was with my mum when I mentioned the idea of becoming a BSL level one teacher and helping hearing people learn the basics of BSL – but mostly, I wanted to support businesses to communicate with deaf customers. My mum mentioned the Prince’s Trust, and that day I signed up to attend its Enterprise course.

I loved the course and met some of the most wonderful people, including my mentor, Richard. He believed in my idea, and helped me through the process of making it into a business.

But just after I started putting my plans together, in March 2020, coronavirus hit the UK, I became furloughed, and due to my chest condition I received an NHS letter saying I am considered vulnerable, and had to self-shield for more than three months. This greatly impacted me starting my Help2Sign business, and made me anxious about what the future would hold – especially as being on furlough increased my anxiety and mental health.

Kim smiling

On 26 March, 2020, I uploaded my first video – which was nerve-racking, but I loved so much. I couldn’t believe the positive feedback I was getting. Every day, I receive lovely messages from many hearing individuals learning BSL, which makes me so happy that people are actively learning such a beautiful language.

After just four months, I went from 10 to 6,200 followers, have been featured in Stacey Dooley’s documentary Locked down Heroes, and was nominated for a Diversity Award in the Excellence Entrepreneur category, which was an incredible and lovely surprise. Recently, I was approached to collaborate with Tea Please UK, to combine my love of art with BSL, and have now got a range of mugs and T-shirts with my illustrations on, with the proceeds going to SignHealth. This is a charity I have supported for many years, that has played a huge part in helping deaf individuals with their wellbeing and mental health issues, and is particularly close to my heart due to experiencing mental health issues as well.

In a world so focused on promoting diversity and raising awareness, there is still a lot to do regarding accessibility for the deaf community – such as interpreters. I hope that I can, even just a little, make a positive impact in the deaf community.

Rachel Coffey | BA MA NLP Mstr, says:

We have all seen the world differently in the past few months. We’ve noticed just how important it is to connect with our loved ones, but also to be able to communicate our needs to others – and be ‘heard’.

It’s really great that at a time when many were drawing away from society, Kim found she could reach out and engage. She reminds us that there are so many different ways to experience the world, and opening our eyes to how others see it can broaden our own horizons, and allow us to feel part of something bigger.

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Korean American short stories resonate in Caroline Kim’s collection

“There is so much I wish to make my daughter understand, but cannot,” an immigrant father muses about his pregnant daughter. “I am sure she feels much the same way.”

That disconnect between generations, between cultures, between histories, looms in Caroline Kim’s stupendous debut, “The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories.”

Winner of the 2020 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, one of the nation’s preeminent awards for short fiction, Kim was chosen by lauded novelist and essayist Alexander Chee (“The Queen of the Night”) with whom Kim shares a Korean American heritage.

“I wanted to read stories about what I felt was missing for myself: stories about Korea, what it was like in the past and during the war,” Kim said in an interview that accompanied the prize announcement. “I [also] yearned for stories where the POV came from a person like me: Korean, American, middle-aged, a mother, an immigrant, [and] an outsider.”

Almost two decades in the making – she says she wrote a story every few years – the result is a breathtaking literary accomplishment. A rarity among first, second, or even tenth collections, Kim maintains enviously superb quality throughout the dozen stories, in which she varies geographies (Korea, California, France), time periods (18th century to the future), and multiple generations.

The most emotionally resonant among the stories is perhaps “Picasso’s Blue Period,” featuring the immigrant Korean father longing for mutual understanding with his Westernized daughter who is about to make him a first-time grandfather. As he waits first in his daughter’s sleek California home and then at the hospital where the birth happens sooner than anticipated, the father recalls the family’s early immigration experiences and how, decades before, another pregnancy resulted in a drastically different outcome. 

Pregnancy also dominates “Arirang,” in which a young wife in pre-war Korea knows that her only hope of being treated as more than an overworked servant is to produce a son. Meanwhile, the village is already aflame with the latest gossip about a beautiful young mother of four who is pregnant yet again, this time – despite fervent protestations – not by the husband who comes home only once a month.

Mental health, a taboo topic in traditional Asian families, takes the narrative spotlight in multiple stories, including “Magdalena,” about the abandonment of a recently arrived immigrant wife and mother by her family, who choose this course of action rather than attempt to address her growing mental difficulties; and “Therapy Robot,” in which expensive, face-to-face counseling sessions are replaced by always-available, programmed-to-be-empathetic machines. 

The title story, “The Prince of Mournful Thoughts,” is told in the voice of a nobleman who recounts his years of serving Crown Prince Sado, once heir to the Yi Dynasty in mid-1700s Korea. The rendering of Prince Sado’s tragic life is, for the most part, historically accurate, adapted with some liberties: The real Prince Sado’s fatal temper and murderous behavior worsened as his emperor father distanced himself further from his dangerously unpredictable son, eventually leading to the son’s execution in his late 20s. 

That ubiquitous, timeless longing for connection haunts Kim’s narratives throughout: Her characters, she reflects, “find themselves uprooted from where they began, looking for the place that will feel like home.” For Busan-born Kim – who immigrated to the United States at an early age and has lived on the East Coast, in the Midwest, and in Texas – home is now northern California. Over decades, she’s honed her writing with both an MFA in poetry and a master’s degree in fiction. Her current pursuit of a graduate degree in counseling surely inspires insightful on-the-page conversations. Attuned to words both written and spoken, Kim composes with intelligence, clarity, and, occasionally, impeccably timed humor. Her cast of memorable characters includes the disappointed and determined, the contemplative and thwarted – all of them searching for connection. And for the fortunate few, finding it. 

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

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NKorea silence on Kim’s health raises succession speculation

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — With North Korea saying nothing so far about outside media reports that leader Kim Jong Un may be unwell, there’s renewed worry about who’s next in line to run a nuclear-armed country that’s been ruled by the same family for seven decades.

Questions about Kim’s health flared after he skipped an April 15 commemoration of the 108th birthday of his grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung. It’s North Korea’s most important event, and Kim, 36, hadn’t missed it since inheriting power from his father in late 2011.

North Korea’s state media on Wednesday published some past comments by Kim but didn’t report any new activities, while rival South Korea repeated that no unusual developments had been detected in the North.

Kim has been out of the public eye for extended periods in the past, and North Korea’s secretive nature allows few outsiders to assert confidently whether he might be unwell, let alone incapacitated. Still, questions about the North’s political future are likely to grow if he fails to attend upcoming public events.

Kim is the third generation of his family to rule North Korea, and a strong personality cult has been built around him, his father and grandfather. The family’s mythical “Paektu” bloodline, named after the highest peak on the Korean Peninsula, is said to give only direct family members the right to rule the nation.

That makes Kim’s younger sister, senior ruling party official Kim Yo Jong, the most likely candidate to step in if her brother is gravely ill, incapacitated or dies. But some experts say a collective leadership, which could end the family’s dynastic rule, could also be possible.

“Among the North’s power elite, Kim Yo Jong has the highest chance to inherit power, and I think that possibility is more than 90%,” said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea. “North Korea is like a dynasty, and we can view the Paektu descent as royal blood so it’s unlikely for anyone to raise any issue over Kim Yo Jong taking power.”

Believed to be in her early 30s, Kim Yo Jong is in charge of North Korea’s propaganda affairs, and earlier this month was made an alternate member of the powerful Politburo.

She has frequently appeared with her brother at public activities, standing out among elderly male officials. She accompanied Kim Jong Un on his high-stakes summits with U.S. President Donald Trump and other world leaders in recent years. Her proximity to him during those summits led many outsiders to believe she’s essentially North Korea’s No. 2 official.

“I think the basic assumption would be that maybe it would be someone in the family” to replace Kim Jong Un, U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters Tuesday. “But again, it’s too early to talk about that because we just don’t know, you know, what condition Chairman Kim is in and we’ll have to see how it plays out.”

The fact that North Korea is an extremely patriarchal society has led some to wonder if Kim Yo Jong would only serve as a temporary figurehead and then be replaced by a collective leadership similar to ones established after the deaths of other Communist dictators.

“North Korean politics and the three hereditary power transfers have been male-centered. I wonder whether she can really overcome bloody socialist power struggles and exercise her power,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University in South Korea.

A collective leadership would likely be headed by Choe Ryong Hae, North Korea’s ceremonial head of state who officially ranks No. 2 in the country’s current power hierarchy, Nam said.

But Choe is still not a Kim family member, and that could raise questions about his legitimacy and put North Korea into deeper political chaos, according to other observers.

Other Kim family members who might take over include Kim Pyong Il, the 65-year-old half-brother of Kim Jong Il who reportedly returned home in November after decades in Europe as a diplomat.

Kim Pyong Il’s age “could make him a reasonable front man for collective leadership by the State Affairs Commission and regent for the preferred next generation successor,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “However, elite power dynamics and danger of instability might make this an unlikely option.”

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North Korean media silent on Kim’s whereabouts as speculation on health rages

FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks as he takes part in a meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) in this image released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on April 11, 2020. KCNA/via REUTERS/File Photo

April 22, 2020

By Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean state media on Wednesday made no mention of leader Kim Jong Un’s health or whereabouts, a day after intense international speculation over his health was sparked by media reports he was gravely ill after a cardiovascular procedure.

North Korean media presented a business as usual image, carrying routine reporting of Kim’s achievements, publishing his older or undated quotes on issues like the economy.

South Korean and Chinese officials and sources familiar with U.S. intelligence have cast doubt on the South Korean and U.S. media reports, while the White House said it was closely monitoring the matter.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who held unprecedented summits with Kim in 2018 and 2019 in an attempt to persuade him to give up his nuclear weapons, said the reports had not been confirmed and he did not put much credence in them.

“I just hope he’s doing fine,” Trump told a White House news conference on Tuesday. “I’ve had a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un. And I’d like to see him do well. We’ll see how he does. We don’t know if the reports are true.”

Asked whether he would try to reach out to Kim to check on his condition, Trump said: “Well I may, but I just hope he’s doing fine.”

Speculation about Kim’s health first arose due to his absence from the anniversary of the birthday of North Korea’s founding father and Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, on April 15.

On Wednesday, the main headlines from KCNA included pieces on sports equipment, mulberry picking, and a meeting in Bangladesh to study North Korea’s “juche” or self-reliance ideology. The official Rodong Sinmun newspaper carried older or undated remarks attributed to Kim in articles about the economy, the textile industry, city development, and other topics.

As usual Kim’s name was plastered all over the newspaper, but there were no reports on his whereabouts.

Daily NK, a Seoul-based website, reported late on Monday that Kim, who is believed to be about 36, was hospitalised on April 12, hours before the cardiovascular procedure.

The story’s English version carried a correction on Tuesday to say the report was based on a single unnamed source in North Korea, not multiple as it earlier stated.

It said his health had deteriorated since August due to heavy smoking, obesity and overwork, and he was now receiving treatment at a villa in the Mount Myohyang resort north of the capital Pyongyang.


On Tuesday, CNN reported an unnamed U.S. official saying that the United States was “monitoring intelligence” that Kim was in grave danger after surgery.

However, two South Korean government officials rejected the CNN report and South Korea’s presidential Blue House said there were no unusual signs from North Korea. China, North Korea’s only major ally, also dismissed the reports.

Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, told Fox News the White House was monitoring the reports “very closely”.

“There’s lots of conjecture going around,” a senior Trump administration official said on condition of anonymity late on Tuesday when asked if there was confirmation of the reports.

North Korea experts have cautioned that hard facts about Kim’s condition are elusive, but said his unprecedented absence from major celebrations for his grandfather’s birthday last week signals that something may have gone awry.

Thae Yong Ho, a former North Korean deputy ambassador to London who defected to South Korea in 2016, said state media’s extended silence is unusual because it had been quick to previously dispel questions about the status of its leadership.

“Every time there is controversy about (Kim), North Korea would take action within days to show he is alive and well,” he said in a statement.

His absence from the April 15 anniversary worship, in particular, is “unprecedented,” Thae said.

Kim is a third-generation hereditary leader who rules North Korea with an iron fist, coming to power after his father Kim Jong Il died in 2011 from a heart attack.

Reporting from inside North Korea is notoriously difficult, especially on matters concerning its leadership, given tight controls on information. There have been past false reports regarding its leaders, but the fact Kim has no clear successor means any instability could present a major international risk.

Trump said he had asked Kim about succession in the past but declined to elaborate.

“The basic assumption would be maybe it would be someone in the family,” said O’Brien. “But, again, it’s too early to talk about that because we just don’t know what condition Chairman Kim is in and we’ll have to see how it plays out.”

With no details known about Kim’s young children, analysts said Kim’s sister and loyalists could form a regency until a successor is old enough to take over.

“At least Kim Jong Un did his best to talk and meet with President Moon in the past. I don’t recall any other other time we were in such a good relationship with North Korea,” said Lee Eun-ji, a 28-year-old nurse in Seoul.

“If his health really has deteriorated and he becomes critically ill, then I wonder if his replacement would even try to make those efforts….I worry his successor could be a warmonger and it could be a threat to South Korea.”

In recent years, Kim has launched a diplomatic offensive to promote himself as a world leader, holding three meetings with Trump, four with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and five with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Kim has sought to have international sanctions against his country eased, but has refused to dismantle his nuclear weapons programme, a steadfast demand by the United States.

(Reporting by Josh Smith, Sangmi Cha, and Hyonhee Shin; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Jack Kim)

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