[NOTEBOOK]History, division and forgivenessIn late September, a crowd of young women wearing short T-shirts with dyed hair and thick makeup sat in the auditorium of the Education Center for Unification in northern Seoul. They were performers who would attend the opening ceremony of the Ryukyeong Chung Ju-yung Stadium in Pyeongyang. In the auditorium were also tall young men who seemed to be basketball players. Other people receiving their education at the institution that day were going to the North to visit Mount Geumgang, for economic cooperation missions or for humanitarian assistance. Any South Korean who is visiting the North for the first time must receive four hours of education. There were over 300 people in the auditorium. Because more than 1,000 persons visited Pyeongyang to attend the opening ceremony of the stadium, the institution just might have to increase the frequency of the education sessions, which are being given twice a week now.
Don’t point your finger at the statues of Kim Il Sung. Be especially careful with the titles of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il. Try to avoid any mention of the North Korean nuclear program or any other political or military issues. These were some of the instructions given at the session.
To put the lecture in a nutshell, don’t do anything to provoke the North Koreans and just do what you were sent to do. It was a disappointment to find out that the education program was not an opportunity to find unexpected new facts about North Korea. North Korea, it seems, was exactly as we imagined it to be.
All this brought to my memory incidents of 30 years ago. A group of North Korean commandos led by Kim Sin-jo came down to attack the Blue House. Kim Sin-jo’s mission managed to penetrate as far as the back yard of the Blue House before they met resistance and tried to flee to the North. One January morning, rubbing my cold hands to keep them warm, I followed the excited buzz of my friends to the neighborhood police station. There, we saw the body of a North Korean agent rolled up in a straw bag. (During that time, there was a curfew at sunset in winter.) The chase continued for some time. Kim Sin-jo was captured alive and was brought to the site to identify his companions when one was killed during the chase.
At the end of the same year, armed North Korean agents killed a boy named Lee Seung-bok, who was about my age; and in 1969, a double agent who worked for the North, Lee
Su-geun, was captured dramatically at Saigon’s airport. These events are hazy in my memory because I was only a child. But I remember that those were very uneasy and cold days.
As recently as 1973, when the sociologist Song Du-yul first visited North Korea, the situation was not so bad there. As Mr. Song said, North Korea at the time was still seen by scholars in Germany and other western countries as having the potential for sustainable development. South Korea only surpassed the North in the late 1970s as a result of its construction projects in the Middle East.
We of today all know how the end of the story, but at the time it was hard to predict what was going to happen. To outsiders, South Korea’s Yushin system imposed by President Park Chung Hee and North Korea’s one-party dictatorship might have appeared the same. If the two Koreas were the two halves of what was really one country, then North Korea had the advantage of being economically better off and it might have been the smarter choice for Mr. Song to choose the North over the South.
Nevertheless, Mr. Song must be regretting his choice now. If not, why would he want to settle in the South? He could remain “a marginal man with the tendency to lean on one side,” as he once described himself. Should we solve the problem of Mr. Song magnanimously, without binding ourselves to law and principles, even though he is insisting on lame self-justification instead of sincere apologies?
Or should we lay down the heavy hand of punishment on Mr. Song to console the sense of loss that those who were not allowed, or did not allow themselves, the luxury or vanity of standing on the outside to weigh the two sides and choose one?
Or should we consider first the principle of equity in regard to those who were sacrificed by the sometimes capriciously swinging of the “sword of division” called the National Security Law?
However the story ends, the ending will taste somewhat bitter for a long time.
* The writer is international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Jae-hak