The old man and what he sees

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The old man and what he sees

SAMGONNI, Gyeonggi -- As the only fisherman allowed in a restricted area here near the Demilitarized Zone, Choi Gi-jung has pulled up a lot of different things -- catfish, carp, mandarin, horseshoe crabs and at least four bodies.

On Sept. 17, Mr. Choi began the day as he usually does at 5 a.m., pushing an old wooden boat out onto the Imjin River. With the Chuseok holiday coming, Mr. Choi was praying for a big haul of mandarin. There were not much fish that morning though, which was strange for this time of year was usually a good season. Rowing his small boat to the center of the river, Mr. Choi spotted something between the rocks -- an ivory-colored object floating in the water.

The morning air around him suddenly took on a fusty, repulsive smell.

"Oh, no, not again," Mr. Choi muttered.

Grabbing a radio in his boat, he sent an urgent message to the police and then sat there waiting, his oars out of the water, his senses overwhelmed by the odor.

He could not identify the body and the military forces told him later that the deceased was a 13-year-old girl from North Korea. The area along the border between the Koreas had suffered from record-breaking heavy rainfall during the recent typhoon, flooding homes, trashing roads and drowning the 13-year-old girl. The body apparently had floated for several days, decomposing and swelling. One villager, when shown a photo, thought it was a dead pig.

Mr. Choi, 59, was born and has spent his life as a fisherman in Samgonni, a village near the DMZ. He is the only man on the peninsula with a license to drop a line in the Imjin River, which runs between Gaeseong, North Korea, and Paju, South Korea, until it meets the Han River.

The Imjin runs through the DMZ, which in most places is approximately 2 kilometers wide from a Military Demarcation Line, which borders each side. On the South side of the DMZ sits a civilian restricted area, 15 kilometers wide. Samgonni, sat in the civilian restricted area until a few years ago, but now is just outside that boundary.

Mr. Choi says he learned over the years that after all North and South Koreans are the same, at least when it comes to dead bodies. "You never know how foul the smell can be," he says, seated in his gray, stone house in Samgonni. Over the years, he has picked up the smell in the wind several times -- corpses from North Korea. Civilians and soldiers. Every year during the typhoon season, two or three bodies on average leave the North and make their final journeys in this world to the South. They float down the Imjin until they become snagged on rocks, or sometimes by Choi Gi-jung's fishing nets.

The 13-year-old girl could not be brought back to her homeland: the North Korean government denied her existence. She was buried in the Yeoncheon Public Cemetery in Mr. Choi's neighborhood, in an unmarked pauper's grave.

It's a far cry from what happened to one army lieutenant rom the North who was found dead in the river by Mr. Choi. The soldier was sent right back to the North where he allegedly had a grand funeral. Seo Tae-yong, the chief of the Defense Security Command of the area, says, "North Korea somehow intentionally does not claim bodies of civilians. But it's a totally different story for soldiers. The North does everything it can to get a soldier's body back."

But it's not only cadavers that get carried away from the North. Being a diligent fisherman, Mr. Choi went out on the river earlier than his usual 5 a.m. , and in the midst of a bad storm, on July 26, 1996. Heavy, wild waves and strong winds ripped the Imjin. By 6:50 a.m., Mr. Choi had had enough. Suddenly, as he was about to leave, he heard a voice on the river. "Help! Help!" cried a man clinging to a log.

"I sensed from his accent and military uniform that he was from the North," Mr. Choi recalls. After reporting to the police and military forces, Mr. Choi tried to rescue the North Korean. He pulled his boat ashore and ran along the riverbank after the man, who was swiftly moving down the roiling river. His chase was in vain. Military forces and police from the South showed up soon and joined in the rescue attempt. The castaway began to lose strength when he finally managed to take hold of a rubber tube thrown by South Korean police.

The rescued man was Kim Yeong-gil, 20, a staff sergeant in reconnaissance for the North Korean Army. Sergeant Kim had been swept away with another soldier, who was later found dead.

North Korean soldiers reportedly must live on what they grow at their designated farmlands along the river. The two were on sentry duty near the northern part of the Imjin, guarding the farmland from starving civilians, when the storm and heavy rain washed them to the South.

"I took care of him after the rescue," Mr. Choi says. "I even bought underwear for him out of my own pocket, for I felt he was like my son." But Sergeant Kim did not reciprocate, and insisted on going back. He returned on July 29 via Panmunjeom, where a group of North Koreans greeted him with flower garlands and thunderous applause, a ceremony that Mr. Choi, of course, could not attend. He misses Sergeant Kim. "You know, at least he could write me."

Not all North Koreans simply drift to the South. Some -- infiltrators, in particular -- come by choice. One July morning in 1986, around 2:30 a.m., Mr. Choi received a phone call from the military, asking for his help. "We have an infiltration group from the North," a lieutenant said over the phone, "and we need your help badly. You know the region inside and out."

Mr. Choi left his home and went down to the checkpoint, past a "Disobedience Means Being Shot" sign to the Imjin River. The lieutenant and his troops were scouring the region, looking for three infiltrators. They had searched all night with little success.

"Look!" Mr. Choi soon shouted. "I found something!" Along a riverbank he had come upon miniature moving cameras, black rubber diving suits and guns. The search party fanned out from there and hours later finally found the intruders ?all dead from self-inflicted gunshots. Rather than be taken captive, they had killed themselves.

The South Korean Army thanked him and Mr. Choi went home. He later found out that the army had a ceremony to congratulate the soldiers who were at the river when the bodies and supplies were found. Mr. Choi was not invited, and it hurt him. The army's chief officer for the region heard about Mr. Choi's disappointment and summoned him.

"Tell me one thing that you'd like to have," the officer said. "I'll make it happen."

Mr. Choi could have asked for money, but he didn't. "I want you to give me a permanent pass to fish the Imjin River," he said. At that time, fishing on the Imjin was forbidden.

The Korean Army officer thought for a moment, then granted the request.

Until that point, it had been Mr. Choi's dream to fish on the river. Soon, he and his wife, Kim Yeong-gil, received special yellow passes. The pass enables a civilian to set foot in a restricted area along the DMZ. Any civilian wishing to go into this area will be thoroughly screened first and must have a reason for going there. There are some farmers from outside the area who get one-day passes for each visit. But Mr. and Mrs. Choi are the only people who have permanent passes to this tightly restricted area.

"There won't be any more such cases," says an army officer stationed at Dongducheon. "Mr. Choi should consider himself incredibly lucky."

On a recent Monday afternoon, Mr. Choi, out on the Imjin River, looked lucky. The river, unpolluted and protected from any kind of human development, has glass-clear water and excellent fishing conditions. Because no one else is permitted to fish on the river this day, as it is every day, it is all Mr. Choi's. He almost never sees another human being, though he frequently sees wild animals, such as deer, raccoons and wild boars on the riverbanks. "I'm really thankful for this blessed environment of pure and cold water," he says as he rows. "The water flows from the North, which guarantees the purest quality."

Any kind of motorized boat is banned, and Mr. Choi is no exception to this rule.

His little wooden boat carries five fishing nets and bamboo gaffs. On this afternoon, Mr. Choi had caught only three horseshoe crabs. Fishing in November here is seldom a bonanza. During the winter, Mr. Choi is out on the river every three days, but when it warms up, he's here daily, from dawn till dusk.

"On my best days, I get a maximum catch of 28 kilograms," Mr. Choi says, "but earlier this year, my best day, I got me only 5 kilos. The storms probably had something to do with that." A retailer sells his catch to special raw fish restaurants in Seoul. Mr. Choi clears an extra 3,000 won ($2.50) profit for each kilogram, much more than any fisherman in Korea.

In this slow season, Mr. Choi stays busy by voluntarily watching out for forest fires in the area, a task he's been doing for 20 years. Last year, he was given a citation from President Kim Dae-jung in recognition of his service in the mountains. As a chief of the Samgonni village, Mr. Choi bears another responsibility: to report official announcements. Using a microphone, he sits in his house and spreads word to the village's 32 households, news of all manner of events, from weddings to births.

Mr. Choi has four adult children, all living at home. He recently suggested that his only son keep the tradition of fishing on the Imjin River, and perhaps use his yellow pass. His son has not yet decided if he will follow his father.

"Outsiders think that I have a job of great prestige," Mr. Choi says, lighting a cigarette. "That's just not true. Living up here may be pretty, but this is an isolated, lonely area, and certainly not for everyone."

Though well-guarded, this remains a dangerous place to live. There are land mines everywhere and wild animal attacks are frequent.

Says Mr. Choi: "There is nothing romantic about being here."

In 1954, Mr. Choi's father was killed by a land mine while clearing farmland here. Ever since, Mr. Choi has not wanted to work on a farm.

"My family for generations farmed in this area and they used to be a well-off family, owning huge tracts of land." During the Korean War, Mr. Choi's parents, fleeing to the southern end of the peninsula and in need of firewood for cooking, burned their property registration document. They lost a great deal of land with that act.

The sun is starting to dip. On his way back to the shore, Mr. Choi looks around him and smiles. "I'll never leave this home, sweet home. Out here, my best friend is nature."

by Chun Su-jin

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